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5 Ways to Keep the Spiritual Momentum of the High Holidays

The High Holidays and Sukkot have ended. This marathon of Jewish holy days earned many of us an increased spiritual awareness, sensitivity, and commitment. But how can we maintain that growth throughout the year? Here are five suggestions for maintaining the momentum of the High Holidays:

1 – Honoring Shabbat

Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to unplug and stay in good spiritual health. Meals with family and friends, communal worship, connecting with community, and creating time to rejuvenate are critical elements to Shabbat, and to keeping the High Holiday growth going during the year ahead. What you do to honor Shabbat, will reward you spiritually and materially.

2 – Creating time for daily Torah study

A person who is not engaged in daily Torah study is depriving themselves of the nutrients they need to stay in good spiritual health, nurture their soul and develop a stronger connection with God. I suggest a Chevruta – learning with a partner. While attending classes is important, it’s often passive learning. The real impact of Torah learning on your life comes from having a study partner. Even 5 minutes a day.

3 – Acquire for yourself a Shul Friend

Our sages teach us in Pirkei Avot, “Acquire for yourself a friend”. Be in regular contact with people you spent the holidays with. This is a natural group of people to help you maintain your spiritual strength this year.

4 – Volunteer for Tomchei and other chesed projects

My last Dvar Torah of the holiday season was about the importance of doing someone a favor. You can

not underestimate the power of helping others — both on how it will positively influence your life and those you are helping.

5 – Paying your pledges

Many people make pledges of tzedakah / charity during the Holidays. Whether in memory of someone during Yizkor, or a misheberach after an honor, an auction, it is critical to pay your pledge for the impact in the world to take place.

May you continue to grow and learn, and be blessed with an outpouring of divine favor!

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Dwelling in Divine Providence: A Introduction to Sukkot for 2015 / 5776

Source: Dwelling in Divine Providence: A Introduction to Sukkot for 2015 / 5776

As the sun sets on Sunday, September 27th, we begin Sukkot, a spiritual harvest festival commemorating the historic journey of the ancient Hebrews across the desert, the bounty of the fall harvest, and our reliance on God. The first two days are Yom Tov, followed by five days of Chol HaMoed, the intermediary days. Sukkot’s finale is Hashanah Rabbah on Saturday night, October 3rd.

The origins of Sukkot are from the Torah, which tells us, “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days…so that your descendants shall know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

In addition to commemorating this ancient journey, Sukkot contains important lessons on the very nature of faith, unity, and God’s will.

The days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a time of judgement, repentance and forgiveness. But we don’t end there. These Days of Awe are followed by many days of rejoicing and praise.

Called simply “The Festival,” Jewish history books record Sukkot as was one of the greatest festivals anywhere in the ancient world. Thousands of musicians, performance artists and dancers filled the streets of ancient Jerusalem. Kohanim, ritual priests, performed elaborate ceremonies with water libations and giant willow boughs. It was a spiritual Carnival.

Today, while there are community celebrations, Sukkot is celebrated in more modest fashion. Families and communities build a Sukkah, a temporary shelter for eating, celebrating, and sleeping. Each Sukkah bears the mark of it’s creator and are often decorated with tapestries, lights, hanging fruits, posters, and carpets.

In Israel, tens of thousands of pilgrims pray at the Kotel, the wall at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount, commemorating the ancient pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Across the world, from deserts to frozen lands, Jews create these temorary homes next to real homes, on porches, sidewalks, driveways, and in courtyards. Each sukkah a different size and shape. Sukkahs can even be found on tall urban roof-tops.

Why do Jews rough it in the Sukkah for the Festival? Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate in a pub, club, snazzy hotel ball-room or frat house?

Let me explain. On Sukkot there is a special mitzvah, an obligation, to rejoice and be happy.

What makes a person truly happy? Is it a new car, season premiers or the Apple Watch?

Sukkot is a remedy for our faith in possessions to make us happy. Surrounded by the walls of our temporary dwelling place, we remind ourselves that focusing on our friends, family and relationship with God can make us sustain our happiness.

More recently, Sukkot encourages us to help the many people who live on a constant basis without permanent shelter.

While the walls of sukkah can be made of practically anything, and need only be two and half walls, special attention is paid to the Sukkah roof, or schach – which has to be one of the hardest Hebrew words for English speakers to pronounce. The schach is made from bamboo, palm, or fir branches generally. Today, specially manufactured bamboo mats, woven together with sting or other fiber and not metal, are very popular. It’s imperative that the schach provide sufficient shade, but is a not solid roof that can keep out the elements and prevent us from seeing the brightest stars.

Our custom is to live in this temporary home as much as possible during the week. We hold festive meals on the first two days, and participate in as many Sukkot events as we can. Or we just chillax in our own sukkah. The more time you spend in a sukkah the better, and each moment is a mitzvah, a special deed, which brings spiritual blessing.

Besides our temporary Sukkah there are other unique elements of Sukkot that to the uninitiated may seem odd. There is the long, pointy Lulav, palm stalk, which at a casual glance resembles an ancient light-saber, and the Etrog, a citron fruit with an eerie resemblance to some ancient hand grenade.

The Lulav and Etrog are joined by the aravot (two willow stems) and the hadasim (three twigs of special myrtle tree) which are waved in six directions during festival prayers. The Midrash relates that whoever fulfills the custom of the four species properly brings peace and harmony among the Jewish people, spritual protection, and love in his heart for all peoples.

Another deeper lesson of Sukkot can best be understood by another name of the Festival. The holiday of Sukkot is also called the Festival of the Harvest – commemorating the time when we gather our crops and fill our storehouses.

If one has been blessed — our profits outweigh our expenditures, our portfolio has grown and our wine cellars are full and satisfaction and trust fill our soul — it is at that moment that the Torah tells us to leave our home and dwell in a Sukkah. The frail booth teaches us that neither wealth, good investments, IRA’s or even real-estate are life’s safeguards. It is God who sustains us all, those in palaces and those in tents. Any glory or wealth we possess came to us from God, and will endure so long as it is God’s will.

And if our toil has not resulted in great blessing — our investments went south, we lost our job and nest-egg, our cellars are empty, and we face the approaching winter with mounting debt and bills, living off credit from month to month, forlorn and fearful for how we will survive— then as we enter the sukkah we find rest for our troubled soul. We spend time with the indwelling presence of God, the Shechinah, which is present in the Sukkah.

Divine providence is more reliable than worldly wealth which can vanish in an instant. The sukkah will renew our strength and courage, and teach and inspire us with joy and perseverance even in the face of affliction and hardship.

May we be blessed to rejoice and put our faith in God, and experience blessings of peace, shelter, and sustenance throughout the whole world.

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A Foodie Rosh Hashanah: Appetizers for Personal Growth

Dipping an apple in honey is the most popular in a series of simanim, symbolic foods, associated with the Rosh Hashanah feast. The custom is even recorded as far back as the Talmud. There are many other simanim, some simple and some exotic, that vary by community including: fish, pomegranate, fenugreek, black-eyed peas, carrots, dates, pumpkin, leeks, beets, fish heads or gefilte fish, and even chicken livers.

Some simanim correspond to curses and call for destruction of the enemies of the Jewish people. Some imply that their consumption will improve the general position of the Jewish people amongst the nations. Some are indications for having many children, and some that our merits be recalled and that evil decrees be undone.

So, if these simanim are so powerful then perhaps one could think that we don’t need to plead our case to God. Maybe we could just hold massive date and fish-head eating rallies and instantly safeguard the Jewish people and decimate our enemies? [I wouldn’t have that rally just yet.]

The late 13th century Catalan scholar, Rabbi Menachem Meiri, asked whether the simanim are a prohibited form of sorcery. This was several centuries before the Shulchan Aruch, which has chapter on simanim. The Meiri answered that simanim could be construed as sorcery, but they are really there to prod us into action:

“And so that we do not stumble into the forbidden territory of nichush, sorcery, the rabbis instituted that [along with eating them] one should recite statements that inspire teshuvah. So we say on the gourd that our merits should be ‘recalled before you,’ and on the fenugreek that ‘our merits increase,’ and on the leek ‘our enemies be cut off’ – it is referring to sins, the enemies of our soul – and on beets, ‘our sins be removed,’ and on the date, ‘our iniquities be vanquished etc.’” (Beit Habechirah, Horayot 12a).

So we can understand from the Meiri’s explanation that dipping the challah and apple in honey to symbolize our desire for a sweet and good year cannot on its own bring Hashem’s Mercy. Even though mercy is alluded to in the honey — דבש, honey, has the same gematria as אב הרחמים, Father of Mercy — it cannot be received without teshuvah, resolutions, and sincere prayers to Hashem. We use honey to remind us.

Just eating a sweet Medjool date isn’t going to have an effect on our physical enemies, nor on our internal spiritual enemies. Rather, the date reminds us that we can, and must, fight a battle with the yetzer hara (evil inclination).

Somewhere along the road we might have lost a deeper understanding of this teshuvah technology. We started to think that the simanimthemselves have the power to bring forth change in the world. No matter how much honey we eat, it won’t bring transformational change. However they can inspire change. As one of my students remarked, “It will remind me to look at the sweet things in life and not focus on the bitter.”

But rather than ignore the complex practice of the simanim because we don’t understand how to use it, or are afraid that it borders on sorcery, let’s enhance it.

There is also a wonderful mindfulness element that is part of the ritual, as we offer a kavanah an intention before eating each food. Most of the intentions are connected to a play on words between the Hebrew name of the food item and the desired outcome. (Read them here.)

Consider adding additional simanim (found in most traditional Rosh Hashanah prayer books) to your festive table. It might be pomegranates, heirloom beets or pumpkin pie. Use these as appetizers to start the conversation about teshuvah, prayer and tzedakah. The presence of these simanim foods can guide the Rosh Hashanah meal like the Seder plate guides the Pesach Seder, providing opportunities to share insights into teshuvah and encouragement, and to elevate the spirit.

Wishing you a real foodie Rosh Hashanah! May we all enjoy many delicious simanim as catalysts for the intense inner-work and heartfelt prayer we all need to bring about the changes we seek, and may we our world merit an outpouring of Divine Favor.

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Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is co-founder of Pico Shul, a dynamic spiritual community in Los Angeles dedicated to spiritual growth, Torah learning, and helping others. During summers he operates Shabbat hospitality at national music festivals with Shabbat Tent. Rabbi Yonah also serves as Alevy Rabbi-in-Residence at USC Hillel.

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Bar Mitzvah in Baku

I recently traveled to Azerbaijan to speak at the 6th International Conference on Multiculturalism at Baku Slavic University. Azerbaijan is a developing country in the Caucuses on the Caspian Sea, rich in oil and agricultural resources, and committed to building a secular Muslim society tolerant of minorities. They enjoy good diplomatic and trade relations with Israel and America. Yes, Israel and America.

While admittedly I was nervous about what I would find once I reached Baku, my experience working with the Azerbaijan Consulate in Los Angeles had been so pleasant that I could not imagine anything other than a warm welcome. In fact, I spent the next three days as a reluctant VIP, in a whirlwind of activity, with touring, interviews, meetings, celebrations, teaching, and a boat ride on the Caspian Sea. This is part one of a series on my visit to Azerbaijan.

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David looks as nervous as any other 13 year old boy wrapped in a tallit and tefillin, standing on the bima in front of the torah on a Thursday morning. The rabbi coaxes him, and he recites the blessing before, and then the blessing after the torah reading. The candies rain down from the women’s gallery above as we break out in singing “siman tov, u mazal tov”. David is smiling, his father is beaming, and the joy in the synagogue is tremendous.

However, David is not in my synagogue in Los Angeles, but in the Mountain Jews Synagogue in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a Muslim country in the Caucasus.

It was my second morning joining the Mountain Jews for services. And like at other synagogues on a Thursday morning, identifying those those who were there for the Bar Mitzvah was easy: they came bearing gifts and food, and had yarmulkas perched awkwardly on their heads. Everyone was dressed-up for for the occasion. Unlike the previous day, the women’s gallery above was now full with women of all ages, their heads wrapped with colorful scarves. During David’s aliyah, when he was called up to bless the Torah, the women held lit candles.

This synagogue was built by the government in 2011 to replace their aging old synagogue, through the goodwill of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. The floors are covered in colorful rugs, and there are even small rugs on many of the seats. (I would be given a gift of some of these small rugs to take home later by the head of the community.) I was honored by the rabbi to stand with him on the tall bima in middle of the room during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

The Jewish community of Azerbaijan lived in relative peace for centuries — some say thousands of years — before the Soviet Union began to destroy synagogues and repress Jewish life. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that Jewish life in Azerbaijan had a chance to breath again. Many Jews left for Israel, Moscow or America. But thousands stayed and are building Jewish life in Azerbaijan.

Like the rest of the country emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union, Jewish life in Baku is also in development. There are hundreds of children attending two Jewish day schools in Baku. The largest is Or Avner which is operated by the local Chabad emissary Rabbi Shneor Segal, who is nearing completion on a new kindergarten building on the campus of Or Avner (also donated by the government). There are Jewish clubs and other organizations. In addition to the Mountain Jews synagogue there is an Ashkenazi and a Georgian Synagogue in Baku.

After the Bar Mitzvah and morning services, I joined the community and guests in the synagogue basement for a celebratory meal including vodka, tea and pomegranate juice to accompany the breads, salads, olives, omelettes and pastries. I sat with synagogue’s head rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov, who I had previously met when he visit LA with a delegation of Azerbaijani Jews. We conversed in Hebrew about the weekly Shabbat meals that he supervises which the synagogue serves, and other community and charity work that he is doing. Then Milikh Yevdayev, the leader of the Mountain Jews community in Azerbaijan, offered blessings and toasts in Azeri and Juhuri, the local Jewish language.

I made a few l’chaims, ate some pastries, and then had to run — a car was waiting to take me Kultura Plus, a Azerbaijan TV station, for an interview. However, you cannot just run out empty handed in Baku, that’s not the way it works. Two men quickly assembled a plate full of local sweets and a gift bag for me to take, and I wished everyone Mazal Tov!

Photos to accompany by article about David's Bar Mitzvah in Baku.

Posted by Rabbi Yonah on Thursday, May 21, 2015