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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 survi

ve— 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.

Half-Truths and Israel-Blaming Don’t Make a Convincing Case for the Iran Deal

The reason [the Iran Deal] it is so controversial in the United States is because the political leader of Israel has said that the deal represents a mortal threat to the security of Israel. — Joe Cirincione

In dissecting the reality that is the confusion surrounding the impending deal with Iran, the Jewish Journal ran an article with an interview with Joe Cirincione. Cirincione is “a nuclear policy expert who served for nearly a decade on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, beginning during the Reagan administration.” He currently runs the Ploughshares Fund, which is dedicated to the eradication of nuclear weapons.

Sometimes all it takes is one line to really understand where someone is coming from.

Cirincione lays the blame for the Iran deal’s difficulties at the feet of Israel and its very vocal Prime Minister. Although Cirincione adds that Republican politics are at play as well, it is Israel that he calls out. Very telling.

That line is enough to undermine what he has to say on the Iran Deal because he cannot possibly be providing a unbiased appraisal of the deal.

But this is a lengthy interview and presents other points that are misnomers or half-truths.

Cirincione argues in favor of the current deal with Iran, and that Israel’s security will be enhanced by the deal. He calls Israeli’ Prime Minister wrong, saying “He’s wrong. Every single argument that he presents has been thoroughly answered and rebutted by the best and brightest national security and military experts in United States government”.

Cirincione seems to have not read that other nuclear experts, military experts, international leaders, and people in his own government are questioning the deal.

Arms-control expert David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector in Iraq, is quoted in the NY Times:

…three weeks might be ample time for the Iranians to dispose of any evidence of prohibited nuclear work. Among the possibilities, he said, were experiments with high explosives that could be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, or the construction of a small plant to make centrifuges.

Alan J. Kuperman, an associate professor and the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin who published “The Iran Deal’s Fatal Flaw” in the NY Times as well:

By my calculations, Iran’s actual breakout time under the deal would be approximately three months — not over a year. Thus, the deal would be unlikely to improve the world’s ability to react to a sudden effort by Iran to build a bomb.

Then there are the several hundred military experts here in the US opposed to the deal.

In addition to these voices, there are reasoned and critical thinkers, experts on foreign policy, that are critical of the deal.

Robert Satloff has asked 10 questions to Obama via Jeffrey Goldberg, that cannot be ignored, or swept under the rug with “every argument has been thoroughly answered and rebutted” because they have not.

Lastly there is this mistake; “The history shows that you cannot stop a country from getting a nuclear weapon if that country is intent on getting one.”

When Israel destroyed Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities that stopped their respective weapons programs.

Certainly not everything Cirincione said is wrong. For example he said:

This deal keeps the conventional arms embargo on Iran in effect for five more years. Five years from now, will the embargo be lifted? Yes. This deal does not solve all our problems with Iran. It doesn’t address their support for Hamas and Hezbollah; it doesn’t address their human rights record; it doesn’t get American prisoners out of Iran.

What will not stop an Iranian nuclear weapons programs, in my opinion and the opinion of others, is this Iran deal, currently days away from passing, that will allow Iran to maintain a nuclear infrastructure capable of producing a nuclear weapons in three months —  all with the help and oversight of the United States.

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Undecided Senators Need a Call – Today!

We have spent weeks telling our elected officials: the current Iran Deal is flawed, will increase the likelihood of war and bloodshed in the near future, and will enable Iran to obtain nuclear weapons in almost no-time within 15 years. However, the administration has made it very hard for Senators to vote against the deal. Your phone call, email, Facebook message, or Tweet could help tip the balance on their vote.

Senator Michael Bennet (Colorado)
(202) 224-5852 or (303) 455-7600
Email Contact Form
Senator Cory Booker (New Jersey)
(202) 224-3224 or (973) 639-8700
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Senator Maria Cantwell (Washington)
(202) 224-3441 or (206) 220-6400
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Senator Ben Cardin (Maryland)
(202) 224-4524 or (202) 224-1651
Email Contact FormSenator Bob Casey, Jr. (Pennsylvania)
(202) 224-6324 or (215) 405-9660
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Senator Chris Coons (Delaware)
(202) 224-5042 or (302) 736-5601
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Senator Joe Donnelly (Indiana)
(202) 224-4814 or (812) 425-5862
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Senator Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota)
(202) 224-2043 or (701) 258-4648
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Senator Mazie Hirono (Hawaii)
(202) 224-6361 or (808) 522-8970
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Senator Ed Markey (Massachusetts)
(202) 224-2742 or (617) 565-8519
Email Contact FormSenator Barbara Mikulski (Maryland)
(202) 224-4654 or (410) 962-4510
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Senator Patty Murray (Washington)
(202) 224-2621 or (206) 553-5545
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Senator Gary Peters (Michigan)
(202) 224-6221 or (313) 226-6020
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Senator Debbie Stabenow (Michigan)
(202) 224-4822 or (313) 961-4330
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Senator Jon Tester (Montana)
(202) 224-2644 or (406) 586-4450
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Senator Mark Warner (Virginia)
(202) 224-2023 or (804) 775-2314
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Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island)
(202) 224-2921 or (401) 453-5294
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Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon)
(202) 224-5244 or (503) 326-7525
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