Shaarei Shamayim

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SUKKOT 1 - 5778

 e are all horrified by the shooting in Las Vegas—the most deadly shooting in US history. We may learn more about the shooter’s motivation, but it’s pretty clear that not much could have been done to prevent this. The shooter was on the 32nd floor shooting into a packed crowd of 20,000 concert goers and couldn’t miss hitting innocent victims as the bullets rained down from above. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Fortunately, the smoke detector in the shooter’s hotel room went off from the gunfire leading the police to quickly find the shooter. If not for the smoke detector, many more would have been shot.


Rashi (Ex. 19:4) quotes the Midrash that when the Jews left Egypt they too encountered a barrage of arrows and stones raining down from the sky. However, they were shielded by the ananey hakavod (clouds of glory). But there was no shield in Las Vegas as 58 were killed and over 500 wounded. We’re all left stunned, feeling so vulnerable as we wonder: what is our world coming to?

Our vulnerability extends to our homes. Let me ask you: How strong is your home? After hurricanes Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico or the earthquakes in Mexico last month—our homes are not really much stronger than a Sukkah that can be ravaged at any time. The Sukkah is the symbol for us today—a symbol of how fragile life really is. No matter how strong or beautiful our homes may be, in the end, they’re frail. No matter how good and secure we think our lives may be, one call from the doctor can change it all. In the end, Sukkot teaches that we all live a Sukkah.

The holiday of Sukkot couldn’t come at a better time. Its message of love and embrace stands in stark contrast to the anger and hate we have been witnessing. And indeed, the Sukkot message offers us both hope and an antidote to the pain in our troubled world.

Rabbi Eliezer, in the Talmud (Sukkah 11b), held that the Sukkah represents those clouds of glory that protected the Jews from the arrows and stones of the Egyptians as they left and protected them during the wilderness years from heat during the day, cold during the night, and bathing them with the radiance of the Divine presence. Its message is: it’s only Gd that can protect us from the ravages of this world.

Rabbi Akiva on the other hand says a Sukkah represents just a Sukkah—no more and no less: a hut, a booth, a temporary dwelling. It’s what the Jews lived in as they traveled in the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. And so the Torah (Lev. 23:43) tells us we must live in Sukkot this week: “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am Hashem your Gd.” The message is essentially the same: even if we live in a frail Sukkah, we can be happy under Gd’s protective wing.

As we have seen just in the past few weeks, storms of great magnitude can uproot hundreds of thousands of people and their homes—hardly temporary shelters—as these homes were torn apart by wind and water. So many are still without power, food, or water in Puerto Rico; many lost their lives and homes in Puerto Ricco, Mexico and Houston. Even the earth itself is not stable as seen with the earthquakes in Mexico.

We don’t really like to be reminded of our vulnerability to nature’s wrath and our helplessness in the face of events beyond our control. We’ve lived through so much tragedy in the past few weeks. We can’t explain it; we don’t understand. Yet, Sukkot is z’man simchateynu (the time of our joy) and the Torah (Deut. 16:15) commands us to be ach sameyach—utterly joyful. How do you legislate joy?

Making matters more interesting and complicated, on Shabbat Chol Hamoed after the 1st days of Sukkot, we’ll read one of the most perplexing and hardly joyous books in the Bible—Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). If fact, it’s a bit depressing! It’s enough to make one’s head spin! On the one hand we’re commanded to be “utterly joyful,” and on the other we’re faced with what Kohelet describes—hakkol haveyl—as life’s utter futility.

The fusion between joy in life and life’s tragedies joins together, uniquely, within the Sukkah itself. We walk into the Sukkah, body and soul, aware of our own temporary moment in the sun, and yet also aware of the immediate beauty which surrounds us in the fall. We know the Sukkah is frail—as we often are—but we also experience the pure joy of sitting down beneath branches, surrounded by the art work of our children, and made aware of our ancestors’ journey in the wilderness so many millennia ago dwelling in Sukkot and dreaming of a land of milk and honey.

When I lived up north, it was sometimes so cold in the Sukkah that I had to put in an electric heater. Once, I remember, it snowed in the Sukkah. Nevertheless, there still was that sense of joy being in the Presence of Gd in the Sukkah with family and friends I love.

Nothing can erase the heartache of a random shooting that takes away lives in the fullness of youth or even in the autumn of life. Nothing can soothe the feelings of those who lost everything in the damaging storms and earthquakes. To them we reach out when we can with support and embrace them in the fallen Sukkah of their lives. This is Sukkot’s truth and its somber message.

As rabbi Eliezer taught, the Sukkah is symbolic of the ananey hakavod(clouds of glory) that protected the Jews. We no longer have that physical protection of the Exodus experience. We’re physically vulnerable to bullets or missiles coming down from above. Yet we still have the same source of protection. Yes, there are bullets and missiles that do come through, but there are many more that should have come down and didn’t. All we can do is to keep to heart the message of Sukkot: that even in the midst of uncertainty and tragedy there’s still happiness to be found in life and satisfaction to be gained. The “utter joy” of Sukkot invites us into a temporary, frail shelter and dares us to live life fully with family and friends aware, that just as the Jews lived in Sukkot on their way to the Promised Land, so we, too, are on a sacred journey in this life.

So enjoy each moment of Sukkot this year—despite all the disasters we have witnessed. In the spirit of the joy of living feel in your Sukkah the joy of the presence of Gd. Amen!


Sukkot 2 - 5778

Sukkot is the Jewish holiday with the most symbols. We live in a Sukkah and shake the lulav and Etrog with its myrtle and willow leaves—all filled with symbolic meaning. Lately the great American symbol, the American flag has dominated the news. One could say that a flag is nothing more than a piece of cloth.  Yet in the eyes of many people, it’s much more. There’s a story attached to our flag; there’s meaning to its design and examples of selfless heroism among those who have been willing to fight and die for it.

Flags are not just important; they’re sacred. We revere them in much the same way that we revere the Torah. There are people who beam with pride when they sing the Star-Spangled Banner and others who feel that the flag represents all that’s wrong with America today.

The decision by NFL athletes to go down on a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner has raised a great deal of controversy in our country. Some see this as an expression of free speech while others feel that it’s disrespectful. There’s an argument to be made on both sides and we’ll not resolve this issue this morning. What I’d like to focus is why symbols matter to us.

Yesterday I noted that the Talmud gives 2 opinions for the symbol of the Sukkah: Rabbi Eliezer says it represents the ananey hakavod (clouds of glory) that protected the Jews as they left Egypt until they entered the Promised Land and Rabbi Akiva said it represents the Sukkot the Jews lived in then. Rabbi David Golinkin, in article, offered no less than 5 other explanations for the symbol of the Sukkah based on Jewish sources. We see that symbols often have different meanings to different people. None of these explanations are necessarily right or wrong. We attach different meanings to symbols beyond their essential purpose.

The lulav and etrog is another matter. To an outsider, it must appear strange to see people circling the shul with palm branches and oversized lemons. The Torah doesn’t tell us why we do this. As a result, there are at least a dozen explanations for the 4 species. Whichever explanation works for you, the lulavand etrog should to be treated with respect…at least, until the holiday ends, that is.

Every year one of my teachers at Yeshiva after services on Hoshana Rabbamorning announced that he was willing to sell his expensive lulav and etrog at a discount. Of course, the lulav and etrog for which he paid so much was now worthless. When the time for using it passed, the lulav and etrog lose their aura of specialness and value.

We see that there are 2 types of symbols. Some symbols are conditionally holy based on context and timeframe…while others are holy unconditionally—even after they’re no longer of any use. We bury old siddurim and tefillinwhen we can’t use them anymore. Following Hurricane Sandy, some shuls in NY held funerals to bury Torahs that were damaged beyond repair. On the other hand, once a yarmulke becomes dirty and ripped, you can throw it in the garbage. You don’t have to kiss a yarmulke if it falls on the ground.

So, what can we learn from the many symbols that inhabit our Jewish universe? And what can they teach us about our American flag?

1st, whether you personally revere a symbol or not, you should treat it with respect. Its specialness is not intrinsic in the object but in what it means to others. If I’m visiting a church, I take off my hat out of respect. When non-Jewish males come to the synagogue we expect them to put on a kipah as a show of respect. It’s not about what they personally believe but their respect for what I believe. The same is true for the flag; we respect the flag—not just because of what it means to us—but also because of what it represents to others.

Finally, some symbols are important even when they’re broken. In the wilderness, the Jews carried the broken shards of the 10 Commandments in the Ark along with the whole ones. Our symbols may not live up to our expectations or aspirations, but they still deserve to be treated with respect. We need to recognize that there are those who feel that we have failed to live up to the ideals that the flag represents. That may be true, but we must still treat the flag with respect. Name calling, accusations, and anger serve no purpose. Neither does acting in ways that are disrespectful.

Personally, I think the athletes were wrong to kneel when the national anthem was sung, but of course, I’ll defend their right to do so. Ultimately, the most sacred and revered symbol is not a piece of cloth or a parchment, but the person next to you. We are all created in the image of Gd. How we speak to each other and how we speak about one another is the greatest expression of what we believe in—both as Americans and as Jews. 

Let’s learn to revere our symbols and to respect one another. That’s a goal worth striving for. Amen!

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