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The JCRC's Rabbi in Residence, Abbi Sharofsky, provides our community with an engaging commentary on the week’s Torah portion.
“You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” ~ Leviticus 23:42
“I found instructions online and we can get the materials at a hardware store. How bad could it be?” ~ My family
Jews have constructed sukkot for thousands of years. They were discussed in the Torah and usedthroughout the Temple periods in Jerusalem. Today they are widely available for purchase online in “pop up” and “E-Z” varieties. A quick search for “sukkah” on Amazon yielded 521 results, ranging from sukkah-building kits to sukkah decorations to a t-shirt that says “I’d rather be sitting in my sukkah. #FeastofTabernacles.” There’s a carry-on sukkah -- including a kosher bamboo mat for the roof – that can be set up in five to ten minutes and sukkotcomplete with plastic windows, reinforced canvas and plastic sides, click together poles, and murals painted on the sides, all available for sale at several online shops, shipped right to your front door.
Not my front door, however. This year is not only my first at the JCRC, it’s the first time my family is living outside Manhattan and we finally have our own space to build a sukkah. We tried the DIY – do it yourself – approach, building a sukkahfrom scratch using internet instructions. My husband took the lead in the design, engineering, construction, and trips to the hardware store. As of two hours before Sukkot, he was on his fourth trip in four days.
Our sukkah is not perfect. It is not as sturdy as the ones bought online, and after the first two days of Sukkot, it’s leaning to one side and half of the wood beams and cornstalks used for the skach, the “not really a roof” of the sukkah, are falling down. But it’s ours and each person in our family, including our kids, helped build it. We are delighting in eating our meals in our sukkah, enjoying the cool night air and the joy that comes with sitting in one’s own perfectly imperfect sukkah.
Parashat Vayeilech - 5780
God said to Moses, “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him. Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting.” Deuteronomy 31:14
Leadership transitions are complicated, as we see in this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech. Moses knows his life is ending and he will not lead the Israelites into the Land of Israel. Joshua will take up the mantle of leadership. However, before Joshua can lead, Moses needs to be able to step aside.
Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), also known as the Netziv, in his Torah commentary Haamek Davar, compared the Israelites’ change in leadership to the daily cycle of the sun setting and the moon rising:
Just as the moon only shines when the sun is about to set, similarly, Yehoshua was unable to shine while Moshe’s light was still shining strongly… Once Moshe’s light began to set, Yehoshua’s light began to shine. This is what the verse means, “Your time is approaching to die,” and therefore it is the right time for you to place your spirit onto Yehoshua.
The setting sun has a beauty all its own, painting the sky with its last rays of light, allowing the moon to glow. Rather than attempt to “outshine” each other, Moses and Joshua model a peaceful and timely transition of power. No one can lead forever and there comes a time in every community, every organization, every country, when the power dynamic shifts and a new leader steps into place.
Historically the transfer of secular government power has at times imperiled Jewish diaspora communities. American Jews are blessed to live in a country that has always prided itself on mastering peaceful leadership transitions, living the example set by Moses and Joshua.
“You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions…” Deuteronomy 29:9-11
The Jewish people are assembled, standing and waiting, anxious, tired, hungry, and unsure of themselves in this setting. Every moment that passes brings them closer to an unknown future in the Promised Land.
Parshat Nitzavim focuses on Moses’ speech to the Israelites at the end of his life. He knows that one chapter of the Israelites’ story is ending, and another will begin. He includes everyone in this moment, not only the leadership. Everyone is present at this moment of transition, to be reminded of their place in a covenantal relationship with God.
During the next two weeks Jews worldwide will gather for High Holy Day services, some in familiar spaces they attend every week, some stepping into a synagogue for the first time in a year. They will stand together, listening, praying, and thinking about the next hour, the next week, and the next year. We will move from one year to the next, not knowing what the future will bring.
Nitzavim emphasizes that even in a point of transition, we stand with community. Community is what sustained the Israelites as they journeyed in the wilderness and it is what sustains us today. The emphasis on “all of you” reminds us that we are not alone in in this moment and in this space, not alone in our vulnerability, not alone in accepting the responsibility to live up to our highest ideals and aspirations in the year to come.
Parshat Ki Tavo
“You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…’” Deut. 26:5
Sound familiar? These verses play a central role in the narrative of the Passover seder, establishing the Israelites as slaves in Egypt and recounting the miracle of their exodus. They also highlight a concept present throughout much of this week’s Torah reading: : gratitude.
Ki Tavo is known for its litany of curses that will befall the Jewish people if God’s laws and rules are not obeyed. The chapter preceding the curses, however, focuses on the formula to be said when bringing an offering of one’s harvest to the Temple. This juxtaposition reminds us that even in the times of plenty, we must take a moment to appreciate the struggles involved in reaching a moment of bounty and blessing.
These verses resonated with me at a recent interfaith meeting I attended, where I heard my colleague Anne Golightly, a lay leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, discuss the truckloads of food she was preparing to receive for donation to local hunger-related charities:
“As part of Day to Serve, which is a regional initiative to elevate our level of service in the Greater Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia area, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides an offering of many pounds of food from our storehouses in Utah. This year 160,000 pounds of food will [be distributed in our region , including]20,000 pounds to the Capital Area Food Bank in DC, and 60,000 pounds to the Maryland Food Bank. Other deliveries will follow to three foodbanks in Virginia and two in West Virginia.”
Anne explained that her reason for sharing this information us was not to give accolades to her specific faith group, but rather to shine a light on the extreme need in our area. She commented:
“ We feel it's important to prepare and be self-reliant, so this warehousing of food that we also grow and produce, is a way we do that. When there are great needs beyond our own, we love to share.”
All faith communities know the feeling of journeying to a new place, creating community, and building for the future. It is a moment of pride when a community is able to say they have enough to provide for themselves and recognize the importance of offering to others, elevating their harvest from simple nourishment to an expression of sacred gratitude.
“When God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” Deuteronomy 25:19
The last verse of this week’s Torah portion,Ki Teitsei, captures the complexity of trauma and memory. One part of the verse tells us to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the tyrannical nation that set out to kill the Israelites in the desert. The second part commands us to not forget. Which one is it? At times, we focus all our energy on wiping out those who have or will hurt us, to the point where our pain turns into hatred. We perhaps give short shrift to the exhortation to remember the human suffering that results from any enmity, and to strive to choose differently in our own lives.
Eighteen years ago today, the world watched in disbelief as the horrific, unspeakably violent and cruel terrorist attacks of 9/11 resulted in the loss of thousands of innocent lives. We promised to never forget these victims, and to never forget the hatred that brought the world to that moment.
In fulfilling the command to remember, we must not forget who we are as Jews and as humans. We cannot use faith as a tool to exclude others rather than welcome the stranger. The command to remember did not and cannot include Islamophobia, xenophobia, and turning away the stranger. We must not get so entangled in the first part of the verse, wiping out those who hurt us, that we forget the second part.
Do not forget that hate fueled the heinous actions of that morning 18 years ago and that hate has no home here.
Do not forget the outpouring of love and solidarity in the weeks that followed,
Do not forget our obligation to honor the memories of those we lost by living out our highest ideals and not succumbing to fear and hurt.
May the memories of those precious souls always be a blessing.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” Deuteronomy 16:20
Jewish tradition teaches that there are no unnecessary words in the Torah. If a word appears twice, as it does in this week’s Torah reading there is a reason. The phrase tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” urges people to seek justice, with the doubling of the word “tzedek” making it not only a suggestion, but an imperative. As Jews, we are commanded to strive to establish a just society with equal balances and measures, rights and protections. It is not a choice.
When I arrived at the JCRC of Greater Washington two months ago I immediately saw how my work – our work – was wholly dedicated to fulfilling this core Jewish value. I recognized this as I gathered with fellow faith leaders to discuss immigration and racism. I learned about my colleagues’ legislative efforts that address hate, poverty, disability rights, and so many other issues. I lived it as I spoke to nearly 150 teachers and mental health professionals from Montgomery County Public Schools, teaching them how to better support their Jewish students and be responsive to anti-Semitism in their schools. A busy summer, and still so much work ahead.
The Hebrew letters in tzedek – tzadei – dalet – kof –also spell tzadik, a righteous person. Justice is an outward action, something we work towards for others so that we can all safely and humanely co-exist in this world. Righteousness is a virtue that comes from within, reflecting integrity, morality, honesty, compassion, and humility. At times when tzedek, justice, seems beyond reach, the Torah compels us to move beyond our comfort zones and choose to be a tzadik. As we enter the month of Elul, a time of preparation for the High Holidays may we all seek new ways to integrate our aspirations for personal growth with our obligations to our people, our community, and the world. I look forward to working with you all in pursuing this sacred mission.