Thoughts on Sukkot (5771/2010)

(I delivered this dvar torah at our Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot service on Friday evening 9/24/10)

Earlier this evening we read together a beautiful passage from our siddur composed by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, a prominent Conservative rabbi who passed away in 2003.  Let me read it again because it bears repeating:

May the door of this synagogue be wide enough

to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.

May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,

thanks to express, hopes to nurture.

May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough

to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.

May its threshold be no stumbling block

to young or straying feet.

May it be too high to admit complacency,

selfishness and harshness.

May this synagogue be, for all who enter,

the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

Underlying the words of Rabbi Greenberg’s prayer is the understanding that whenever we gather here, the hopes, backgrounds, anxieties, joys, talents and quirks that we bring with us are varied and diverse.  But our tradition teaches that it is IN PARTICULAR when we are together as one community in prayer that we access the holy in a way we can’t do alone – no matter how rich our individual spiritual practices may be.  As we read in Leviticus 22:32 (part of the traditional reading for the first day of Sukkot ):

“Do not profane My holy name, but I will be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel (Hebrew: “VENIKDASHTI BETOKH BNAI YISRAEL”)-- , I, the Eternal who sanctifies you.”

A traditional Chasidic teaching explains:   “When a person is singing and cannot lift their voice, and another comes and sings with them, another who CAN lift their voice, the first will be able to lift their voice too.  This is the secret of the bond between spirits”  (Hasidic teaching, cited Siddur Hadesh Yameinu , p. 101)

We need each other – and our own spirituality is nourished by our time together in this Bet Tefillah/ house of prayer, This Bet Midrash/  House of Study  -- This Bet Knesset/ This House of Assembly and Meeting. 

All three of those Hebrew names – Bet Tefillah/Bet Midrash and Bet Knesset are traditional names for the building in which we are now gathered.  What this means is that it’s not ONLY when we are singing the service together that we are reaching for kedushah/ a sense of the holy.  And it’s not just when we take out the sefer Torah from the ark and study its words that we are reaching for kedushah.  It’s also in just the little greetings and social interactions we have with one another before, during and after the service. 

Every time we greet someone warmly we are also engaged in Kiddush Hashem/ The Sanctification of  God’s name.  And, by contrast, every time we succumb to petty judgmentalism or icy sarcasm in our encounters with one another we risk committing Chilul Hashem/ The Desecration of God’s Name.   

For each of us is created btzelem elohim/ in the image of God – and causing hurt to another person is an act of desecration.  Rather, as we are reminded by Rabbi Greenberg’s words in our prayer book – we want the door of this synagogue to be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship, all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express and hopes to nurture – while shutting out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.

We are now in the midst Chag Ha-Sukkot, the festival of Booths – also designated in the Torah as “Chag Ha-Asif”, the festival of ingathering of the fall harvest.   The sukkah itself reminds us of the flimsiness of our material possessions in the face of the wide expanse of nature.  Physical structures can succumb to the effects of winds and rain.

Case in point:  Just two days ago we welcomed Sukkot in our Temple sukkah and it was beautifully decorated by our religious school students with Jewish stars, blessing chains and fall bouquets.  The decorations, not to mention the schach that Marko collected for the roof – took a beating in yesterday’s rain.  The fragility of the sukkah reminds us to turn our thoughts to what is truly enduring:  the bond between spirits. 

Another important tradition of Sukkot is the gathering together of the Arba Minim/ the Four Species --- the Etrog or Citron, the Lulav or Date Palm Branch, the Hadas or myrtle and the Aravah/ the Willow.  The Torah, in Leviticus 23, verse 40 , simply tells us to gather these items together  “usemachtem lifney adonai eloheichem shivat yamim”  ("and rejoice before the Eternal your God for seven days”). 

The Torah doesn’t give us any explicit explanation of WHY we should gather the Arba Minim together.  But various rabbinic-era midrashim try to do so.  One midrash says that the four species represent the four letters of God’s name – Yod (the citron), Hey (the willow), Vav (the date palm branch) and Hey (the myrtle).  Another midrash says that the four species represent the different parts of the body through which we should pursue a life of holiness – with our heart (the etrog), with our lips (the aravah), with our spine or backbone (the lulav) and with our eyes (the hadas).

But my favorite midrash about the arba minim/ the four species, is the famous midrash found in the fifth-century compilation of midrashim known as Vayikra Rabbah) where it is explained: 

The Etrog has both flavor and aroma; such is Israel, some of whom are wise and learned in Torah and also do good deeds. The Lulav has flavor but no aroma; such is Israel, some of whom are wise and learned in Torah but are lacking in good deeds.  The Hadas has an aroma but no flavor; such is Israel, some of whom do good deeds but are not learned in Torah.  The Aravah has neither flavor nor aroma; such is Israel, some of who are not learned in Torah and are also lacking in good deeds.  However, the Holy One, Blessed be God, does not  forsake any of God’s children; rather, God binds them together, and in this way they are one complete whole. (Vayikra Rabbah 30:11)

These four species come into play in the context of the mitzvah of netilat lulav --- gathering them together and waving them in all directions in a kind of Jewish rain dance during our joyous celebration of Sukkot. 

What I personally find really meaningful about all this is that the midrash is implying that we need to bring all of these different types of people together to make the holiday work.  We’re not striving for a whole congregation of etrogim or even a whole congregation of willows.  Rather, we rejoice in the fact that all of us are together – and we need all of us to be together.  The Torah-types and the Gemilut Chasadim types – the Rationalists and the mystics – the young and the old – the men and the women – the straights and the queers – the democrats and the Republicans – the rich and the poor – and every gradation in between and to the left and to the right of all of those identifiers.

Just as we need all four species of the lulav in order to celebrate Sukkot so do we need the whole Jewish community in all its variety and diversity to feel welcome in our congregation.  Some of us are married.  Some of us are single.  Some of us have children. Some of us ARE children.  We belong to biological families.  We belong to adoptive families.  We belong to families of choice.  Some of us attend synagogue with whole families in tow, some attend with friends, some come by themselves. 

We can mouth the words of a prayer, asking God to “Make the doors of this synagogue wide enough for all who enter" – but, in truth – we, ourselves are the doorkeepers.  

And, as we do so, we invoke other words of the siddur --- Barcheinu Avinu Kulanu Ke’echad Be’or Panekha – God, our parent, bless us, all of us, as one in the light of your presence. 

Sukkot is indeed a time to celebrate and strengthen our unity as a people – but is also the most universalistic of Jewish holidays.  Alone among the pilgrimage festivals prescribed in the Torah – the Biblical-era Sukkot called for the bringing of sacrifices on behalf of all the nations of the world.  And the traditional haftarah for the first day of Sukkot invokes Zechariah’s vision, familiar to us from the closing words of the Aleinu – “Vehayah Adonai lemelekh al kol haaretz bayom hahu yiheyeh Adonai echad ushemo echad.”/ “And it shall come to pass that the Eternal shall reign over all the earth; on that day the Eternal shall be One and God’s name shall be One.” (Zech. 14:9)

May the spirit of friendship, respect, appreciation and warmth that we work to convey here in this synagogue help us to bring holiness to our own lives and help us to spread that spirit beyond these walls to the world at large.

Moadim lesimcha – may this week of Sukkot be a true zman simchateynu/ a season of joy – and to all of us –

Shabbat shalom.



Posted on October 1, 2010 .