Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Noah 5767 - Noah's Rainbow Connection


This week we come to the story of the Noah and the flood. God becomes dissatisfiedwith the generation of the flood and all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them. But he does save one family, that of Noah, who was the most righteous of his generation. Noah is commanded to build an ark that will house male and female of every species and a few extra of the clean species. The floods come, everything is wiped out except what is on the Ark. God promises not to do that again, sealing the covenant with a rainbow. Noah, on the other hand, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don't completely trust god not to wipe them out too. They decide to make a tower at Babel to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. God intervenes,and soon no one can communicate with one another. These peoples are scattered across the world, becoming the various nations of the world. Following the genealogy of Noah's son Shem, we end introduced to some interesting characters: Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot.

We read about the rainbow:

11. And I will establish my covenant with you; nor shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; nor shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.12. And God said, 'This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for everlasting generations; 13. I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. 14. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud; 15. And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.'

Many people find a dichotomy between science and religion. Funny thing is that dichotomy seems meaningless to many early western european theologians. One of the earliest people to accurately describe rainbows through the use of experimentation was the Dominican Theodoric of Freiberg in the early 14th century, who even accurately described double rainbows. One of the major findings of this early experimental work was if one were to take a light source, an observer and a water droplet (simulated by a glass flask), then if there is a 40°-42° angle between the light sources and the observer, the water droplet will reflect and refract in a way splitting out the colors of the rainbow. Between the 50-53 degree angles, we get the double rainbow.

Of course there's the song written by Paul Williams, and sung by the great green entertainer Kermit the Frog, which begins:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows,
And what's on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, they're only illusions,
Rainbows have nothing to hide
So we are told and some chose to believe it,
I know they're wrong wait and see,
Someday we'll find it, the Rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

I feel the same way about rainbows, while knowing the science I'm always in awe of the sight of the rainbow. The idea that on a 41 degree angle between me, the brightly shining sun, and the thunderstorm that just drenched me creates such a wonderful phenomenon just means that God wove such a sight into the fabric of the universe. The rabbis of the Mishnah in a sense agree, that the rainbow is one of the miracles created at the last seconds of creation:

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: [i] the mouth of the earth, [which swallowed Korach][ii] the mouth of the well,[which provided water during the Exodus] [iii] the mouth of the she-ass, [which talked to Balaam][iv] the rainbow, [v] the manna, [vi] the rod [of Moses], [vii] the shamir,[a creature which silently cut the stone blocks of the temple] [viii] the text, [ix] the writing, and [x] the tables.[of the Ten Commandments.. there's a whole drash there] [Avot 5:6]

The rabbis, who believed everything was created during the seven days of creation, came up with this explanation that miracle objects were actually woven into creation at the last minute. But this is not the only place that rainbows are mentioned. The major source of the early rabbi's commentary on the text is found in Midrash. There are many volumes of Midrash, but the most known is Midrash Rabbah, the Great Midrash. In Genesis Rabbah we read about rainbows:

I set my bow [Gen 9:14] my likeness, a thing that is comparable to me. Is it possible? But rather [like] straw to grain.

When I gather cloud on the earth [Gen 9:16], R. Judan in the name of R. Judan b. Simon [What is this compared to?] To one who has in his possession hot wax (or axe) who seeks to give it against his son but gives it against his servant [instead]. [Gen R. XXXV:3]

Once again, while the idea can be seen in the English, there is a lot of the meaning lost in the translation. We have here two ways of dealing with textual issues. The first is by wordplay. Hebrew at that time was not written with vowels, they were assumed. The Midrash takes the word for my bow Q-Sh-T-Y, and adds two more letters Q-Y-Sh-V-T-Y, which is the word for my likeness. Before one starts screaming FOWL! About changing text like that, one has to understand the nature of the Yud (Y) and Vav (V). Both are known as semi-vowels. At times they are used as vowels. The Yud is used as one form, known in Latin as plene of the long E sound as in the word English. The vav can be used either for the long O of Omaha, or the OO of lOOk. Thing is there are other ways called defectiva where the vav and yud can be missing and have the same using other vowel markers which would be invisible in an unvocalized text. The rabbis took the defectiva word, and made it plene, then read it, coming out with this idea of a likeness.

But of course, that's problematic. We don't have a likeness for God. Making likenesses are forbidden by the Ten Commandments, and more likely than not we would die from looking at the likeness of God anyway. So there is an objection. The objection is resolved by another word play now changing the word for rainbow into Q-Sh-Y-N. Q-Sh is the word for straw. Thus a rainbow is like God in the same way straw is like the edible grain - A pale reflection.

The rabbis liked metaphors and descriptive stories, and the second part of this Midrash points out another very common device used throughout rabbinic literature, the mashal. In its full form one might see the phrase A Parable. To what is this compared to? To…. Yet there are many variations of this phrase leaving out words hear or there. In our verse, it is reduced to the smallest form, just the word To. The rabbis use a parable of a man who is angry with his son, and is going to punish him in a very painful and brutal way. Our modern texts are not completely clear about exactly how, as one word could be translated as hot wax, or as a hot axe. But instead, the man metes the punishment out on a hapless servant instead. The son is spared the punishment, but sees the result of the anger. Of course in the
parable the man is God, the son is the Jewish people, and the hapless servant is the rainbow.

The midrash is an anthology, and thus multiple contradictory opinions can be right next to each other. This is the situation here for example, where we have two differing points of view on rainbows. In one, we have the rainbow as a likeness of God, however pale that might be. On the other, we have the rainbow as the place God metaphorically spills out his anger, one which other rabbis would use as a metaphor that anyone God is angry at has seen a rainbow. Only the very righteous have never seen a rainbow, because God has never been angry at them.

Iv'e seen rainbows, so I guess I'm not among the righteous. Actually, I'm a big fan of rainbows, often stopping everything I'm doing to go see if there is one. After any big storm, when the sun suddenly begins to shine, I'm out the door. Sometimes, if there is a sudden storm, while the storm is still raging, I'm checking my watch, to see if we are late enough in the day to have that important 40 or 50 degree solar angle. Some chase tornadoes, I chase rainbows. There are many reasons I do. One is that I am color blind, I can only see strong color: the more bold the color, the more I can see. Pastels are completely meaningless to me. Rainbows, perfect hues, contain such colors. But the other reason is one more rabbinic hermeneutic - actually #1 among the 13 of Rabbi Ishmael - a qal v'homer, or a fortiori reasoning. If a lesser case is true, according to reasoning by qal v'homer, then a greater case is so much more the case. If a brilliant, awe inspiring rainbow is like straw, a pale imitation of grain, then how much more so is the Glory of God brilliant and awe inspiring? What can this be compared to? To a righteous king who when walking by a bush, snags and tears his beautiful talit on it. When a beggar goes to sit under his bush he finds the corner of the garment, affirming the presence of a king he has never seen.

When I looking up into a dark sky with the sun behind me at forty-two degrees, and see one of the few colors I can see, the brilliant blue thread in an arc across the sky, I know the rainbow for me is God's tzitzit, reminding me to do the mitzvot.

That is the rainbow connection.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bereshit 5767 - is Rashi Abel to Raise Cain?

(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

This week we begin the story over again. As most know, the story begins with chaos and void, God says “let there be light” and there is light, then God takes seven days to create the rest of the world, ending with male and female created in God’s image. After all this work, God takes a well deserved and blessed Shabbos schluff. This is followed by the story of the first man, another version of why the animals were created to keep the man from being lonely, and finally with the creation of the woman. We then find out that one of these creatures is a little more wilily than the rest, and it isn’t the coyote. The snake convinces this woman, now named Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and in the resulting mess everyone is booted out of Eden. The snake ends up never wearing boots again, though told might make one a home every once in a while. Today I want to pick up right where that ends.

1. And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain, and said, I have acquired a man with the Lord. 2. And she again bore his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. [Gen 4:1-2]

The story of Cain and Abel is one of those places where usually one reads the literal version, skips the genealogies afterwards and goes straight into a distant relative of theirs: Noah. Yet as one reads carefully, questions begin to show up. We are not the first to ask those questions, generations of commentators have asked the same questions. One of those questions occurs only a few verses later

4:17. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

Where did he get a wife from? For those who only see this as legend, it is easy to move out of the legend and say from the next city over. But for those who want to keep the text consistent, it isn’t as easy. According to the literal text there were four people on Earth at this point: Adam, Eve, Abel, who is six feet under by this point, and Cain. No mention of girls hopping into the scene anywhere.

As I said last week, I haven’t gotten too much into Rashi yet, and one of my goals is to increase my perspectives of the text with other commentaries. Rashi, an acronym for Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, was a Medieval French commentator on texts, writing commentaries for the Torah and the Talmud. Unlike the Tannaim who wrote the midrashic commentaries, and needed to make sure everything had a logical argument, Rashi was man of few words, and would merely make a quick comment about the text, usually based on that rabbinic tradition. While the Rabbis would note multiple interpretations, Rashi would give one. In a sense Rashi did to commentary what Maimonides would do to Mitzvah in the Mishneh Torah: he standardized it. To this day, his commentary is the prime one. Open a Chumash, and more likely than not if there is Hebrew commentary it will be Rashi’s. Most orthodox do not quote Rabbinic Midrash first: they quote Rashi.

This is so true that in the earliest Chumashim with commentary, Rashi is always included, usually in a smaller font that the text. Yet for Italian printers, this presented a rather big problem due to its smallness. Very small type made of lead has a high chance of being damaged and printing wrong, particularly if it has a lot of right angles as does Hebrew. This was not the first time such a problem existed of course. The Roman font used for Latin and the rest of European languages had the same problem. The Italian printers solved the problem of the roman letters by changing the font to one with curves in it instead, named after the inventors. We therefore have the italic fonts we know today. Similarly the Jewish Italian printers in typesetting commentaries into the Tanach and Talmud used a font of small curved letters which would not break or bend in printing. But instead of naming after the typesetters, most people named it for the commentary they were most often typesetting for: Rashi.

Yet for the modern eye, it is not an easy read. And so I have avoided trying to read Rashi in the original for a while. But in this case I gave it a try, and found a few vocabulary words I did not know. Yet, after translation of one of them, I had a rather startling surprise.

CAIN…HIS BROTHER ABEL etc. the “et’s” are amplification. This is to teach you that a twin girl was born with Cain, and with Abel two (girls) were born. This is why it says “and she added” (cf. Gen R. 22)

The mystery of the missing girls is solved in a rather simple way: They married their sisters. Rashi, being a good scholar, did cite where he got this from as well, the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 22:2

AND SHE CONCEIVED AND BORE CAIN. R. Eleazar b. ‘Azariah said: Three wonders were performed on that day: on that very day they were created, on that very day they cohabited, and on that very day they produced off- spring. R. Joshua b. Karhah said: Only two entered the bed, and seven left it: Cain and his twin sister, Abel and his two twin sisters.

This doesn’t help explain much, leaves a lot more questions, but tells us where Rashi got his ideas. In tractate Yebamot there is passages which mentions the reason as Rashi mentions it

Because it is written, “And again she bore his brother Abel” [which implies:] Abel and his sister; Cain and his sister. [Yebamot 62a]

However trying to read this in English wont help much -- the problem is the Rabbis and Rashi were messing with Hebrew grammar to come to their conclusion, and so it does not come over well in translation. In English when one says “The cat drank the tea” we know that the subject “cat” was doing something to the object “tea.” Because we had the word “the” in front of each noun we are talking not about general classes of things, cats and tea, but a specific thing. “A cat drank tea” is different than “A cat drank the tea.” “The tea” is a direct object. In English we have a word order of noun-verb-noun which tells us where the direct object is. But imagine we had the word order of “drank the tea the cat.” That would be difficult to figure out what was the subject and object, yet that is the order in biblical Hebrew: verb-noun-noun. To see how confusing this could be, in literal word order Genesis 1:1 reads:

Created God the Heavens and the Earth

One could be mistaken that the Earth actually created God! Yet, in Biblical Hebrew, there is a mechanism to prevent confusion. One usually marks the direct object with the word “et” in order to figure out what is the subject and what is the object. So Genesis 1:1 is actually read:

Created God (et) the Heavens and (et) the Earth

Now to our verse in chapter 4:2. Marked with et’s the verse reads:

She bore (et) his brother (et) Abel.

Grammatically, however there can be problems with this sentence. One can interpret it to mean:

She bore (et) his brother; she bore (et) Abel.

This is a fine translation, if you assume someone left out a verb. But one can question this way whether this other sibling was Abel or someone else. Yet, if you interpret that “his brother Abel” is one direct object, then you have one too many et’s! To the rabbinic mind however the Torah is perfect and everything is there for a reason. If there is an extra “et” God’s hinting at something. The phrase “She again bore” helps in seeing what. “Again” is also the word for “Add”, as Rashi mentions. There is more being born that what the text literally says, according to this hinting code. And that thing that is being hinted at is….a twin sister, which solves the problem of who would Cain marry.

Not to leave enough alone however, the Rabbis reason that if the “et” in “Abel” means a sister, maybe the “et” in 4:1 “et Cain” also means a sister. But if that is true, then the et “his brother” might mean a sister too. So in the end we have three et’s, and the three twin sisters Rashi mentions. Cain’s et is one twin sister; Abel’s two et’s are the other two.

Okay, I know what you are thinking, that I’m being a little fast and loose with the text. Yet, there was a school which was that fast and loose with the text, and they did have their detractors. We actually hear more about them again in Genesis Rabbah 22:3, dealing with our verses:

WITH THE HELP OF (ET) THE LORD.(4:1) R. Ishmael asked R. Akiba: ‘Since you have served Nahum of Gimzo for twenty-two years, [and he taught], Every ak and rak is a limitation, while every et and gam is an extension, tell me what is the purpose of the et written here?’

To make things confusing, this “et” is a different one, meaning “with.” Yet it was these schools who has issues with text interpretation. R. Ishmael, probably dripping with sarcasm, asks R. Akiba about rules which allow everything with et to have more meanings than it literally has, and every “only” with more limitations. Akiba was known to use a variety of rules which allowed one to be fast and loose with the text, in the same way we saw with this business of twins. Akiba’s rival R. Ishmael wasn’t happy with that, and in the preface to his commentary he actually published the 13 rules that he thought should be used for legal commentary, and believed all others should be invalid. And like Rashi, the 13 are perceived as the most legitimate, and are still around, even taking its place as part of the morning weekday liturgy’s morning blessings. Open an Orthodox siddur and find the Rabbi’s Kaddish between the morning blessings and the Morning Psalms. Look up a paragraph or so and there you will find R. Ishmael’s 13 rules.

But even with R. Ishmael’s system being the dominant one, raised to the point of prayer, the hermeneutic of amplification wasn’t dead. Rashi used it in our verse. In many places in Talmud, it is used, yet often accompanied with debates from rival schools about its legitimacy and its use. From the literal text, the story of Cain and Abel is one about legitimacy, and the fight about one legitimate answer. That fight continues to this day, even in the holy realm of commentary. The rabbis intellectually fought over the legitimate use of a hermeneutic precept. Rashi believed his filtered version of commentary was the legitimate one, which many still agree with. Two generations after Rashi, though, his own grandsons would challenge much of his view of the Talmud, found to this day on the opposite side of every Talmud page from grandpa. And today, the fight over the legitimacy of the literal interpretation of these first few chapters of Genesis continues.

Cain and Abel may have started the story of who is legitimate, but it continues today. Yet thinking about this explanation I also noted something else. Everything had its twin, or even two. For every male there was at least one female, for every opinion there was a least one dissenting one. Being absolutely right, as Cain became by killing his brother was a mistake. It is in the dialogue and debate that everything grows. Although to make things easier to understand we have Rashi, and Mishneh Torah and its successor the Shulcan Aruch, those codifications kill debate. And it is in the debate of Torah that, As the Perkei Avot reminds us, the Sechinah resides.

May your dialogues be good ones.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Simchat Torah 5767 - A different perspective

This Shabbat coincides with the holiday of Simchat
Torah, the traditional time where we complete the reading of the Torah and then begin it again. We start by reading the end of Deuteronomy

5. So Moses the servant of the Lord died there
in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. 6. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor; but no man knows his grave till this day. 7. And Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. 8. And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; and the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. 9. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the people of Israel listened to him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses. 10. And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11. In all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and
to all his land, 12. And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great and awesome deeds which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

And then we read the Beginning of Genesis:

1. In the beginning God created the heaven andthe earth. 2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters. 3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. 4. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the
light from the darkness. 5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning,one day.

One if the interesting commentaries on this cycle is connecting the last Hebrew letter of Deuteronomy The lamed in Yisrael, and first letter of Genesis, the beit in Breshit.Together they spell theword leiv, heart. In this connection between beginning and end we do so with our heart. In the biblical text heart was just as much a place of the intellect as an emotional center. But in returning through the cycle in our own lives,Do we do the same?

the first and last letter of the Torah spell Leiv

I had one answer to this question over the weekend. In a restaurant recently I was painting a picture and loved the skirt the hostess was wearing so much I included it in the painting. Usually when painting, I just put a colored background in and don't pay attention much to anything but the subject I'm painting. But I wanted to theme the painting to the skirt and the restaurant, which had a tropical
island theme
Woman on patio st sunsetI imagined the woman was on a patio similar to the one I once dined on in Kona, Hawaii at sunset. But that railing looked bad, and detracted for the picture. So I decided to add perspective to my paintings, and that got me thinking too.

For those not familiar with those art terms, there are several ways to show depth in art. One, foreshortening, just takes the sizes and shapes of lines as though they were squashed onto a flat piece of glass. Things close are bigger, and things far away are smaller. On the other hand, there is the more geometric variety, known as perspective. Perspective is based on an eye line of the person painting the picture, which usually translates to the horizon line. Along this line are points known as vanishing points, which are the points all lines recede into the distance to meet. One Point perspective
The simplest variety is one point perspective, where there is one vanishing point, like the one in the illustration of a box with a cut out window. In this case,
all lines converge to one place, like the road and the lines of the box
and window.

But beyond this is the idea of two point perspective, where there are two vanishing points. Two Point Perspective As can be seen by the two blocks in the illustration, this is a little more realistic in rendering, yet it is more difficult to do. In this case the vanishing point to the left is not even on the page, and trying to keep all the lines straight is not easy. But still, it looks better than the one vanishing point.

There are reasons for having three vanishing points, by the way. If we were to put a road between the two blocks in the two point picture, we might use a third vanishing point for the road to follow. Or, if we want to establish height, we might put one perpendicular to the horizon line and shrink the tops of the blocks.

When I added perspective to my paintings, the whole work look far better. The more vanishing points I add, the better it looks, though I find there are more details to consider. How much more so with Torah: every, year, when we read the same thing in the Torah at the same time of the year, we add perspectives and details to our Torah readings and study.

Note that I do not believe we change perspective, but add to our previous ones. Another change which will affect everyone who read Shlomo Drash may help here as another example. Last January, I decided that I wanted Shlomo’s Drash to be on the internet more than my little private e-mail list. So I signed up to, loaded one of their templates, and started blogging my columns. I then
started a website. While my enthusiasm was great at first for the website, my maintenance of it has fallen off during the last few months. As many have probably noted, the holidays section had not changed since Passover! Several projects I had hoped to keep up to date, such as Hebrew, became very difficult to do so.

Part of the problem was I used some automatic tools. For every page I created or changes, I would have to update every other page with changes. This meant that things were very difficult to manage: I even have to edit and post the website, blog, and mail list separately. The automatic tools actually requires more work than doing
the same thing manually. One reason there is no archive of Drashes on the
website is this exact problem, and trying to keep all of this stuff consistently formatted.

However, over the past several days, I learned how to do all this in code (or to use the proper vocabulary, in markup), and understand the underlying structure of a modern web page. I learned funky named markup languages like XHTML and CSS. As I learn, I can do things I could not before, and do them even faster. There will be
plenty of changes to the web site and blog, and hopefully with much better maintenance. By adding viewpoints, and learning new way to use then, the whole of the Web is far clearer to me.

What was cryptic before is no longer, and I can view the world differently because of this. Computer code is strongly literal, with only one layer of meaning. So when we look at something with multiple layers of meaning, such as Torah, how much more so can we see new things with every perspective?

Just in the earliest time of commentary, the Talmudic period, we have plenty of differing perspectives. We have Mishnah, Gemara, Midrash, and Targum, all adding differing views of the texts. Each records differing schools and differing viewpoints. We have later medieval commentators such as Rashi and the Tosafists comprised of his grandsons and their buddies. In the Sephardic world we have Ibn Ezra
and Maimonides. Of course there is the Later Hasidic movement, then Reform, Modern orthodoxy and contemporary commentary. Together they form a whole tool shed of perspective to choose from. Each is a tool to get at meaning we other wise might not decipher.

I try my best to use as many tools a possible, including my own experience in writing these columns. Yet it is all too easy to slip into a pattern of using the same few tools, to the exclusion of others. I’m not the biggest Rashi fan yet, and I’m definitely not the guy to quote Maimonides profusely. There’s a lot I could look at in Hasidic thought as well, but I have often in the last year not gone to those sources, both as a matter of availability of text and expediency of writing this column. Yet, I think it is important to look at all the texts, and not take any as a
final word on the topic. As we will see next week in only one book of midrash, Genesis Rabbah, the perspectives about what happened at the beginning of Creation are numerous. Add other aggadic works, and works from other eras, and you have a massive amount of reading to do.

But every year we need to expand. And some places are difficult to expand into if you don’t know Rabbinic Hebrew. As I learn the nuances of Rabbinic Hebrew, I’m getting closer to the time I can read many of the untranslated stuff out there, and
use those tools to understand the texts. Yet, that is still some time in the future.

Simchat Torah starts with the death of the greatest prophet of all, and ends with the beginning of everything-- all of it done in joy. I’ve had my setbacks lately in teaching Torah, many of the ways outside of the written word I wanted to are as
difficult as ever to do, and to say the least rather frustrating for me. Yet, in 5767, I’m going to be doing a lot of creating, in many different realms. To those who read this, one thing I’d like to do is give you exposure to texts you might not know existed, and give you the perspective on the texts I’ve been using for quite a while. I’m seriously looking into going from print to sound, and figuring out how to get this stuff into a podcast. But most of all, My goal in Shlomo’s Drash is not merely to get something off my chest, though often I do. It’s for everyone to learn more about being a Jew and our rich heritage of perspectives.Mine is by no means the only one, but it is the only one I can give, one which tries to make a lot of intimidating things approachable.

I hope you are as excited about engaging those new perspectives as I am as we journey together.

Hag sameach.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sukkot 5767 Temporary and Permanent

Sukkot 5767 - Temporary and Permanent

This week we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. Usually there is a special Shabbat reading during Sukkot, but this year, Sukkot occurs on Shabbat. We therefore read the reading for the first day of Sukkot, which gives the mitzvah for Sukkot:
33. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 34. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Booths for seven days to the Lord… 39. Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the Lord seven days; on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath… 41. And you shall keep it a feast to the Lord seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. 42. You shall dwell in booths seven days; all who are Israelites born shall dwell in booths; 43. That your generations may know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. [Leviticus 23]

We are told that we are to dwell in booths like the people did as they left Egypt. They are temporary homes. The halakah for Sukkot even mentions that the stars are to be seen through the roof. We have a house with an intentionally leaky roof, walls which often cannot stand a large breeze and very little temperature control. Since the first Ashkenaz Jews came north to the Rhine valley a thousand years ago, the Jewish population also has to deal with the cold weather of autumn when dwelling in their Sukkahs.

I have the most nostalgic memories of Sukkot. One of my fondest memories of childhood is building sukkahs. My family didn’t have our own sukkah, but my dad, year after year designed and put up the sukkah for the conservative synagogue we belonged to. In one of those great father and son moments, I always helped put it up. In some otherwise insane combination of lead pipe, two by fours, nails, chicken wire and corn husks, he invariably created a sukkah that could withstand the obnoxious autumn weather of Rochester, New York. I remember many a day where my religious school class would be in our winter jackets with earmuffs, gloves and hats on in that sukkah, but today I only fill the warmth that was there in its construction.

Yet as I wrote in my Sukkot commentaries in the past, one important point of the holiday is to see change. We read Ecclesiastes, which begins with an interesting Hebrew word, Hevel. Hevel means emptiness but in the way a breath is empty. One minute it’s blowing but eventually it will change. For Ecclesiastes, everything is transitory. We observe the changes in the world around us as the leaves on the trees pumpkins and gourds turn brilliantly warm colors of yellow, orange and red, in contrast to the dropping temperatures, and cold grey skies, wind and rain of October.
After the time of repentance of the Ten Days, it is time for reflection, a harvest not of crops but of our souls. Sukkot is a time to figure out what is our personal and communal harvest for the past year -- what we did right and how we changed. I started to notice many of these over the last few weeks, but it is during Sukkot I really am reflecting on this. As I said in my Rosh Hashanah drash, I learned a lot about fear over the last year, and more importantly how to get over fear, be it roller coasters or women. The fear of approaching someone I find attractive and simply saying "hello" is far less that it was this time last year. I’m even looking forward, though in an apprehensive way, to Expedition Everest, the latest thrill ride on my forthcoming trip to Disney. Yet, the sukkah itself puts fear into perspective. In a sukkah, one is at the mercy on the elements. It might rain on you. In a strong wind, it might blow down and collapse on you. Yet the temporary nature of the booth is such that it is lightweight and really wouldn’t hurt.

I also think of the changes in the thirty some odd years since those sukkahs my dad built. These days, it’s the custodial help of the synagogues who put up such things. Coming full circle, for the first time this year there is a new generation in my family going to the sukkah and decorating with popcorn chains, crayon decorations, cranberries and corn husks. Like many families I doubt my nieces and nephew will ever have memories of actually putting up the chicken wire walls of their sukkah with blue electrical wire. Even thirty years ago such things were relegated to the parking lot of the synagogue.

In the Leviticus 23 passage is an interesting irony: the most temporary of booths must be the most permanent of mitzvot with the command “It shall be a statute forever in your generations” [23:41]. In a place where we have comfortable walls only a few yards away we expose ourselves to the weather exactly when the weather starts to become uncomfortable to be outside. In a world were no one else would eat in such shanties unless they are homeless, all Jews are required to publicly show they are different than their gentile neighbors by having this not exactly beautiful booth out in their yard for the neighbors to see. If we follow the mitzvot of Sukkot, we identify ourselves as Jews. And maybe that's why there are so few suburban sukkahs -- we are ashamed of admitting our identity.

That thought came up during a yom kippur discussion about Tikkun Olam . Some people believe that charitable acts not for Jewish causes are not very Jewish. Indeed some will go as far as saying it diminishes Judaism to work alongside a secular or Christian charitable organization. Some were taken aback by one critic who claimed when it came to social justice, there was no difference between the synagogue and the local office of the ACLU.

Funny thing is, I didn’t know this person. I assume he was a member of my synagogue, but I haven’t seen him at regular Shabbat services. Synagogues are primarily prayer communities, as part of Jewish identity. Our identity is bound in the liturgy and observance. If one does not say the Barchu or Kedushah with the rest of us, is he distinguishable from any other secular American?

In Brachot 55a, we are told by the Rabbis that since the destruction of the Temple, our dining room tables are our altars, the place we eat is our holy space. In a sense the Sukkah where we are to eat two meals a day becomes a temporary holy space, one almost congruent to the Mishkan, that temporary temple in the desert and used until the time of Solomon. And it is interesting that many feel this intuitively, putting on kippot only worn in holy space in the sukkah. Abraham Joshua Heschel commented during the march at Selma he was praying with his feet. How much more so we should pray with our feet in a minyan? How much more so that we should believe every act of Tikkun Olam is done in holy space, and should be treated like a prayer space?

I believe the real issue is not about working with secular or other religions organizations; it’s that we do it in a way that is holy and congruent to Jewish practices. The traditions and kavvanah involved in any service to the greater community, needs to identify us as Jews. Even if our home practice is not strictly halakic, when working on Tikkun Olam in any form we should take on practices that identify us as Jews. If there is a shared meal while doing such community service, we don’t eat pork or shrimp or cheeseburgers. We wear kippot or head wear as if we are in synagogue or a house of study. We don’t do volunteering on Saturday mornings at the least, and preferably none at all because it is Shabbos. Gemilut Hasidim, acts of kindness does not replace Avodah (worship) and Torah (observance and study). All three are part of a three legged stool holding up the world. Like placing a sukkah in the back yard, observances in public identifies us as Jewish. And without that visual identity there is no difference between us and our neighbors. A light unto the nations cannot shine if it is hidden.

Those rickety chicken wire walls, protected only by the same gourds as Jonah’s sukkah, remind me that everyone can see into such a booth as a sukkah, and see our observance. In all my wanderings away from Judaism and back, it was the very temporary sukkah that always remained in my mind, the most permanent of the traditions I liked to follow, and regretted when I could not. I know there are many who will not place the sukkah in their back yard. Some will visit someone else’s. Some will go to that one in their synagogue parking lot that was put up by the custodial help, or even put up by a few determined members who just think it’s an important mitzvah to do. Some regardless of the weather will be eating meals in jackets and mittens and sitting on rain soaked chairs. There is always fear about what the neighbors would think, but as I learned though the last year it is like the fears of asking women for a date or riding a thrill ride at Disney World. Often, though sadly not always, that fear is misplaced. But in the end, if we do not say “I am a Jew, and that’s a good thing” both verbally and in action, we may lose being a Jew.

Quite a thing to be learned from a rickety booth.