Tag Archives: Sukkot

#TieBlog #Sukkot & #EtrogandLulav

7 Oct
The four species that are brought together on Sukkot, as described in Leviticus, 23:40.

The four species that are brought together on Sukkot, as described in Leviticus, 23:40.

In time for Sukkot, here is the newest tie in the #TieBlog collection. Two central commandments from the Torah related to this harvest festival are dwelling in the Sukkah (booth) for 7 days. The other is to gather four species of plants and wave them (based on Leviticus 23:40).

The Midrash (Lev. R. 30:9-12) notes that each of the species has different qualities. The Etrog (citron) has both a sweet taste and a fragrant smell. The lulav (date palm branch) has no smell but its fruit tastes sweet. The Hadas (myrtle) has a fragrant smell and no taste. The Aravah (willow) has no taste and no smell. Taste and order represent Torah and good deeds, respectively. Some Jews possess both, some perform better at one and some do not perform well at either. Yet we gather the species together to symbolize the unity of Israel. For more on Sukkot and Etrog and Lulav, watch the following YouTube videos:

Introduction to Sukkot

Introduction to Lulav and Etrog

How to Make the Lulav Shake

Extrovert or Introvert? Channeling the Personalities of the Jewish Holidays

28 Sep

Channeling the Personalities of the Jewish Holidays

"Quiet," the best seller by Susan Cain

“Quiet,” the best seller by Susan Cain

Shemini Atzeret
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 26, 2013

(I am indebted to Rabbi Joshua Heller and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove for introducing me to Susan Cain’s book Quiet and drawing key connections between the book and Jewish life in prior sermons.)

There’s a story of a yeshiva high school that wanted to boost its sports profile. They thought it would be good for recruitment and fundraising. The school was near a river, so they figured they would start a crew team. Unfortunately, they lost every race. One day, they sent one of the students to spy on another school’s team. The student came back to report: “I know their secret! They have eight guys rowing and just one guy yelling.”

We see in this story a certain stereotype of Jews that suggests each one of us wants to be a big shot. When we get together, we are boisterous and assertive, and we actively seek out such opportunities. However, this is not always the case. Jews are as likely as anyone else to favor traits that require good listening skills, patience and quiet. Let me ask you some questions.

Do you prefer one-on-one conversations or group activities?
Do you prefer to express yourself in writing or orally?
Do you enjoy solitude or crowds?
When your phone rings, do you prefer to send it to voicemail, or answer it right away?
Are you risk averse, or a risk-taker?
Do you feel drained after a weekend of social activities even if you enjoyed them, or do you feel recharged?

If you answered yes to the first half of each choice, you are more likely to be introverted. If you answered yes to the second half you are more likely to be extroverted.

There’s a compelling book that has been on the New York Times best seller list for over a year called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The author, Susan Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert, offers an in-depth analysis of different personality traits. She asserts that modern Western culture, particularly in America, tends to favor extroverts, particularly over the last century. In the early 1900s, Dale Carnegie started his course “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” That reflected a trend then that has only deepened since in which Americans tend to favor style over substance. In other words, our society puts more value in extroverts. Cain argues that this trend has largely been to our nation’s detriment. She illustrates how introverts and extroverts each have essential strengths and that society benefits when they work together.

Cain notes that the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was enriched by both Martin Luther King, Jr. AND Rosa Parks. Dr. King, an extrovert, was the grandiloquent spokesman. Parks, was a quiet, soft-spoken woman who was not one to make waves except when she felt compelled to act as a matter of principle. She was an introvert. The Montgomery bus boycott and the subsequent civil rights movement succeeded in large measure because Parks and King’s personality traits complemented each other so well. Each was essential to the success of the larger cause.

Cain cites scientific research that shows how extroverted and introverted personality traits are hard-wired into people. An introvert can be perfectly outgoing and extrovert can listen and do quiet activities like reading. However, an extrovert derives energy from being in contact with other people, while an introvert derives energy from quiet and from inner contemplation. Neither personality trait is inherently better than the other, but she cites examples showing that our society has suffered by over-emphasizing the virtue of extroversion. As a case in point, the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 she notes was the result of reckless decisions of highly extroverted executives. Over the last few years, it was found that more introverted analysts working at many of the financial institutions issued warnings of the problems with such things as mortgage-backed securities years before the meltdown, but they were ignored by their high-rolling superiors. Their voices were snuffed out. Our entire economy suffered from this lack of balance.

Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret (Thursday, September 26), together remind us of the need for balance. After a week of festivity during Sukkot, the rabbis in the Midrash understood the Torah’s word atzeret to convey stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.'” As long as the fall holiday season has been, let’s let it linger a little bit longer, our tradition tells us. Up until now, it’s been a big, brash party. Let’s take a quiet moment, one on one.

In another midrash, the sacrifices of the seven days of Sukkot done in Temple times were in honor of the 70 nation of the world. On Shemini Atzeret, just one bullock is sacrificed, symbolizing the relationship of God and Israel. It’s as if throughout Sukkot, God is “working the room” of a big party at which all the nations of the world are guests. At the end though, God wants to have a quiet, intimate conversation with Israel.

For me, the Midrashim suggest that the relative calm and simplicity of Shemini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the pomp and circumstance of the surrounding holidays. On the High Holidays, the synagogue is like a grand concert hall in which the sound of the shofar pierces our hearts. On Sukkot we have the pageantry of the lulav and etrog and the multi-sensory ritual of dwelling in a Sukkah. Shemini Atzeret lacks the grandeur and ritual of the preceding holidays. The revelry of Simhat Torah we delay another day. The message of Shemini Atzeret is that God is not to be found only in the peak moments of petition and celebration. These serve as catalysts for intimacy with the divine in daily life, not as substitutes for that closeness. Shemini Atzeret reminds me that God seeks my presence as I seek God’s. God needs some one on one time, and so do we. Shemini Atzeret reminds us that the opportunity for a more intimate encounter with God exists every day of the year, with or without a shofar, sukkah, or lulav and etrog. It seems from all of this that God has both an extroverted side as well as an introverted side. An extrovert might thrive in a party with a room full of people, while an introvert would prefer having a more subdued conversation with one other person. The midrash provides an image God requiring both settings.

Within the Torah itself, we find models of both introverts and extroverts. On Simhat Torah we read the end of the Torah, including the death of Moses. Moses is the Torah’s introvert par excellence. Yet, his brother Aaron was an extrovert. They needed each other and complemented each other just like Dr. King and Rosa Parks did in more recent times.

As a younger man, Moses was perfectly comfortable spending 40 years tending sheep- (a solitary activity). When God comes to Moses, he refuses a public role. He says “Lo Ish Devarim anochi”- I’m not a man of words. I’m a stutterer. I’m a back-office guy. In the end, God has Aaron serve as Moses’s mouthpiece to take on the public role. Moses grows into the public role of leadership, but the high points of his life are still relatively solitary. He goes up Mount Sinai for 40 days, just him and God. He is often separated from his family. According to many rabbinic commentaries to Numbers 12:1, when Aaron and Miriam speak against him regarding the “Cushite Woman”- they are saying that he is so enwrapped in holy activities that he is neglecting his wife and family. They can’t let him be. Moses would not be regarded by others as the “life of the party.” Rather, God singles out Moses for praise as the most humble of people.

In contrast, Aaron is the classic extrovert. When Moses is coming back to Egypt, the proactive Aaron is already on the road to meet him. Throughout the encounters with Pharaoh, Aaron is the mouthpiece. Once they reach the desert, when the Israelites want to make an idol, Aaron is there, swayed by the crowd, and facilitates the making of the golden calf. The midrash tells us that Aaron was ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, he loved peace and pursued it. He was aggressive and proactive in social situations. When two people fought, Aaron would go and sit with one and say “My son! See your friend, see how he tears his heart and his clothes, and says ‘how can I stand to see my friend- I’m embarrassed before him because I was unkind to him.'” And he would sit with him until the anger passed. And he would go sit with the other, and say the same thing and sit with him until the anger passed. The two rivals would meet, and they would kiss and make up. Aaron was able to approach people he barely knew and touch them deeply.

What is fascinating about both Moses and Aaron, not only do they complement each other, but they also each find ways to step out of their comfort zones to do great things. For Moses, the man who said “I am not a man of words” – lo ish devarim anochi–wrote an entire book of the Torah called, Devarim—words. It is essentially a series of major speeches Moses delivers to the people on the banks of the Jordan River. We complete that book tomorrow. Conversely, Aaron the High Priest was a highly public figure. He brought many offerings, he wore many types of garments. He washed many times. All eyes were upon him. However, on Yom Kippur, his most important task was in privacy, in solitude, entering the holy of holies, alone.

We should each cherish our essential nature, as introverts and as extroverts. At the same time, let’s recognize that Jewish practice enables us both to live comfortably in our nature, and to feed and stretch the other aspects of the soul. Our tradition bids us at times to make an effort and step out of our comfort zone and go against our type.

As we gather for Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret at the end of this extensive holiday season, we recall our departed loved ones who loved us unconditionally regardless of, or perhaps because of, our personality type. We honor their memory today by reflecting on their being present for us. In some cases, we might express regret that at times they might not have been present enough for us or that we were not present enough for them. If we are lucky, they challenged us to step out of our comfort zones while at the same time remaining true to our essential character. We honor their memory today by resolving to do the same in our present relationships—be true to ourselves while pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones for the sake of strengthening our relationships.

As we pause to reflect on our relationships today, we realize that being in relationship is complex. Only God can manage to perfectly balance introversion traits and extroversion traits. Some people, like Moses and Aaron, can find ways to complement their respective strengths, but we know that even they experienced tension with each other at times. Still, our tradition, calls upon us to imitate God to the best of our ability in order to bring God’s presence into our lives and the lives of others. On Shemini Atzeret, we think about God seeking to linger in our presence because God needs quiet intimacy as much as grand pageantry. Shemini Atzeret reminds us that God and Israel are like a pair of loved ones who seek both intimacy and mutual growth. May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to be present for one another, to validate others as we were validated and to challenge one another towards meaningful growth.

#TieBlog #Sukkot and #SheminiAtzeret

24 Sep
"And you shall rejoice on your festival...and you should be especially happy."

“And you shall rejoice on your festival…and you should be especially happy.”

Of the ties in my Torah Tie collection, I especially like the ones that have explicit scriptural references. For Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, this tie is particularly apt. Deuteronomy 16, which is read in the Diaspora on Shemini Atzeret morning, describes the calendar of holidays. With respect to Sukkot, the Torah commands (verse 14) “And you shall rejoice on you Hag (Festival, referring specifically to Sukkot)” and then adds shortly thereafter (verse 15) “And you shall be especially joyful.” The tie conflates these verse fragments into one statement, which is a popular song at this time of year: V’samachta b’hagecha, v’hayyita ach sameah. May the season bring joy to all.

Rabbi Bernstein’s YouTube videos on Sukkot

18 Sep

imageFor an overview to the Sukkot holiday, here are three YouTube videos that I recorded in 2009.

Introduction to Sukkot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huYx1lwtQQA

Introduction to Lulav and Etrog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELgUzaGQzIM

How to Make the Lulav Shake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOPjQaFRzxU

18 Sep
Corn stalks represent the fall harvest, and they can also be used for skhakh, the roof of the Sukkah.

Corn stalks represent the fall harvest, and they can also be used for skhakh, the roof of the Sukkah.

On Sukkot, we dwell for seven days in a Sukkah, a fragile, temporary dwelling. It symbolizes the fragility and impermanence of life, yet is also a time to offer gratitude to God for the divine sheltering presence and the abundance that we are able to enjoy in this world. The roof of the Sukkah is called skhakh and is made of plants. During the day, it must provide more share than sun light, and during the night, one must be able to see the stars. Corn stalks, like the ones on my tie, are a popular form of skhakh where they are available.

My relationship with Chicago’s baseball teams: It’s complicated

7 Aug
Opening night at Chicago's Wrigley Field, 8/8/88

Opening night at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, 8/8/88

Twenty-Five years ago today, 8/8/88, the Chicago Cubs turned the lights on for the first time for a night game at Wrigley Field. At the time, I identified as a die-hard Cubs fan. As a native South-Sider, however, I found myself in adulthood gravitating towards the White Sox as the first box score I check in the morning. The White Sox won the 2005 World Series. More recently, the Chicago Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four years, so all of Chicago’s major sports teams have won at least one championship in my lifetime–except the Cubs. What’s more, they haven’t even won a championship in the lifetime of my 99-year-old grandmother. On this momentous anniversary in Chicago sports, here is a sermon that I delivered eight years ago in Cleveland after the White Sox won the pennant in which I describe my complicated relationship with Chicago’s two baseball teams.

Baseball and Sukkot: Lessons in Irony
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein

This past Monday night as we sat down in our Sukkot for the first time this year, we said the traditional sheheheyanu prayer of thanksgiving in which we express our gratitude to God for giving us life and sustaining us and allowing us to reach this occasion. For me, this blessing had special significance. You see, as a native of Chicago I entered Sukkot with the knowledge that for the first time in my life, a Chicago baseball team was going to play in the World Series. Tonight, the Chicago White Sox face the Houston Astros in their return to the World Series for the first time since 1959 and seek to win their first championship since 1917. I am still pinching myself that this is really happening.

Some of you may be sitting here wondering, isn’t Bernstein a Cubs fan? Two years ago he was kvetching about the Cubs falling short, now we’ve got to hear about the White Sox!? It is complicated, I admit. But the confluence of the White Sox winning the pennant with both Yom Kippur and Sukkot have forced me to reflect on the religious significance of this historical moment in my life.

First, Yom Kippur. It was only a week ago, after all, and the spirit of confession is still in the air. Furthermore, our tradition holds that final, final judgments aren’t made until Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot, and that it is appropriate to offer confessions through that time. So, I have a confession to make. I always liked the Cubs and the White Sox, but having grown up on the South Side of Chicago, I was originally more of a Sox fan than a Cubs fan. In 1984, when the Cubs made a valiant run for the pennant, I shifted my allegiance to the Cubs. For many White Sox fans, including close members of my own family, this was utter heresy. They accused me of being a fair-weather fan. For various reasons that I won’t burden you with now, I don’t think this was the case. For one thing, time has proven that I have stuck with the Cubs for over 20 mostly futile years. Nevertheless, I have retained an affinity for the White Sox. While they don’t always have the glitz or media attention of the Cubs, there is a certain charm about them. As the second team of the Second City, they are very much the team of common working folks, who, with some justification, see the Cubs as an elitist team that excludes working fans by playing mostly day games. While I think the Cubs’ commitment to baseball in the daytime is family friendly and good for children, I have always respected the loyal White Sox fan. The problem is that over the years their teams have been so darn boring. Until this year.

A few weeks ago as the Cleveland Indians, the team of my adopted hometown, made a serious challenge to overtaking the Chicago White Sox, I was forced to reflect more closely on my views of the White Sox. As my official biography on the Shaarey Tikvah web site notes, I am a Cubs fan. This year, though, with the tremendous season enjoyed by the White Sox, I have been repeatedly asked by members of this congregation how I feel about it. My stock answer has been that I am a Cubs fan, but still support the Sox. Of course, I was rooting for the Indians to make the playoffs, but not at the expense of the Sox. My public confession is that I have a complicated history in rooting for the White Sox, and I hope they win.

With Yom Kippur out of the way, let me turn to Sukkot. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are both known as z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy. Certainly, for Chicago White Sox fans, this is a great season of joy. Yet, the name z’man simchateinu is somewhat of a paradox. In Chicago, people are excited about playing a summertime sport on a 40-degree, drizzly October night in Chicago. Furthermore, the history of Chicago sports, particularly baseball, is one of such futility, Chicagoans have a fatalistic attitude. We question if this is really happening and if a World Series victory will ever actually occur. Is another Black Sox scandal looming, God forbid? Will an innocent fan interfere with the game and lead to defeat, as happened with the Cubs two years ago? Will the Sox continue to benefit from the umpires’ calls or will they go against them this time? Or, more prosaically, will the Houston pitching simply be better than their own? If they fail this year to win it all, will it take another 46 years to get this far?

A Bartlett Giamatti, the late Commissioner of Major League Baseball, once wrote about baseball:

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Giamatti, a New Englander and former president of Yale University, wrote these words in the 1970s after his beloved Boston Red Sox endured another season of just falling short. Little did he know then that Boston would eventually win a World Series in 2004, after an 86 year drought. This year, it is Chicago that seeks to end an 88-year drought, but Giamatti’s fatalistic attitude resonates for us Chicagoans. There is a great paradox in rooting for a Chicago baseball team in October: abundant joy and hope mingled with fatalism and doubt.

Indeed, this paradox precisely parallels the rituals associated with Judaism’s season of joy. For seven days, we leave the comfort of our homes and dwell in sukkot, fragile, open-air booths. We do this not in the summer months when it would be more convenient, but in the fall when the weather is much more capricious. We do not pamper ourselves with luxuries or recline like we do on Passover. The sukkah reminds us not of our strength and security, but of our vulnerability.

There are other practices that contradict the nickname z’man simchateinu. Every day of Sukkot we beseech God, Hosha Na, please save us! In the season of our joy, one of the holiday’s central liturgical pieces cries out that we are mere mortals and that we need God to save us. Is this a declaration of our joy?

In a little while, we will read from the cynical, fatalistic Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). “Vanity of vanities, all is in vain,” Kohelet teaches us. All of life is hollow, meaningless, amounting to nothing. “There is nothing new under the sun.” Our striving for knowledge and power is futile. We are all mortal. So begins the special Biblical book that we read on Sukkot, the season of our joy.

This coming week, on Shemini Atzeret, we will pray that God will bless us with rain so that we don’t starve. Furthermore, we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers in memory of our loved ones who have passed away. The next day, on Simchat Torah, the day we rejoice over the gift of the Torah, we read about the death of Moses. All of this again on z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy.

The renowned theologian Rabbi Neil Gillman calls this paradox “the emotional ambiguity of Sukkot.” This ambiguity is captured in the book of Kohelet, which is why we read it on this holiday. Kohelet’s conclusion is the opposite of our first impressions. Kohelet’s message in the end is that we should not give up. We must confront and live with the inherent ambiguities of life. “We can find joy,” Rabbi Gillman writes, “in the sheer fact of living, in work, in love, in companionship, in the serenity that comes with understanding and accepting our limitations.”

The statement z’man simchateinu, therefore, is a statement of defiance. Despite all of the pain and suffering in the world, we will go on living. Despite it all, we will express joy. Despite all of the curveballs life throws us, we will not be deterred from celebrating life’s blessings.

For a Chicagoan like me, and I suspect for Clevelanders as well, October baseball is a precarious time. We are joyful over the success that helped us reach this point and hopeful for the future. At the same time, we are humbled by the countless failures in the past and cynical, like Kohelet, that it can ever be any different. Baseball, like Sukkot, is a metaphor for life: joy and frustration playing off each other in a never-ending cycle. For Chicagoans of my generation, never has the cold chill of October felt so good, and yet we acknowledge that it is still cold.

During this season, despite our sense of fragility and uncertainty, let us heed the Psalmist’s teaching, ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, serve God with joy!