Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Walk Article-Shmini Atzeret

Shmini Atzeret-5776
Rabbi David Walk

Every year we revisit the special status of Shmini Atzeret.  This holiday always presents us with a problem, because it's connected to Sukkot, but is considered a separate festival as well. So, is it a continuation of the joy of the harvest feast or a separate holiday with a new message?  Its standing as a unique entity is enshrined in Halacha by the fact that we pronounce the blessing of Shehechiyanu ('Who has given us life') on it.  If it were just the continuation of Sukkot (as the seventh day of Pesach is), there wouldn't be this joyous pronouncement of newness.  So, we struggle with this conundrum every year.  But we love these mysteries, because they yield fascinating new insights.
The most famous answer to this question is that since Sukkot is the most universal of our festivals (after all it is a harvest holiday and everybody eats, plus we sacrificed 70 oxen in the Temple, representative of the 70 nations who descended from Noach, and the fourteenth chapter of Zecharia says that in the future all the nations will come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot), we wanted private time with God after all the company left.   Rashi explains this phenomenon by translating the word atzeret as 'detained', and then tells the following story:  "I have detained you to remain with Me." This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to a great public feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: "My sons! Please, stay with me alone for just one more day, because it is difficult for me to part from you!" (Vayikra 23:36).
But I've discovered a novel approach to this question based on a beautiful idea from Reb Nissan Alpert OB"M.  I'm so glad to present this idea because I was so very fond of Rav Alpert, who was a ben bayit (household member) of Rav Moshe Feinstein OB"M when he came to America after World War II.  Later I knew him as a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University.  He died much too early.  In any case, I heard in his name that regarding Sukkot's relationship to the other holidays that comprise the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals) that Sukkot is the last and culminating celebration. However, he further explains that, in some aspects, Sukkot embodies the essence of all the yomim tovim. He asks why the Torah (Vayikra 23:41) has to use the words "shiv'at yomim bashana" — seven days in the year — in describing Sukkot when "shiv'at yomim" without the word "bashana" would have sufficed. He answers that since Sukkot ends the annual holiday cycle, Sukkot, so to speak, incorporates all the seven days of Yom Tov that occur during the year (two days of Pesach, one day of Shavuot, one day of Rosh HaShana, one day of Yom Kippur, one day each of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret). Therefore, he explains that when the Torah states v'chagotem oto chag l'Hashem shiv'at yomim bashana — and you shall celebrate it as a holiday seven days in the year — it means that you will celebrate Sukkot, which includes and incorporates the seven days of the other yomim tovim throughout the year. Furthermore, it states the word simcha three times regarding Sukkot in the Torah, since it incorporates all of the Shalosh Regalim and their happiness.
This idea is especially powerful when we combine it with the Sukkot custom of Ushpizin.    These metaphoric visitors from our nation's past represent so many concepts, like our connection to our people's history.  However, perhaps, the greatest notion about these guests is that we try to emulate their character traits as described in the Kabbalah.   These are:  Avraham-Kindness (chesed), Yitzchak-Courage (gevurah), Ya'akov-Splendor (tiferet), Moshe-Eternity (netzach), Aharon-Majesty (hod), Yosef-Fundamentals (yesod), and David-Royalty (malchut).  If we take this idea one step further, then the seven days of annual holiday celebration really culminates in the seventh commemoration which is Shmini Atzeret.  In this way, Shmini Atzeret not only incorporates the joy from all the other holidays, but it also represents the malchut of King David.  We have a little taste of the messianic period on Shmini Atzeret.  That fits in well with the traditional approach to Shmini Atzeret in which we hobnob with God in splendid isolation from the rest of humanity.  We do believe that in the future redeemed state our special relationship with God will be recognized by the whole world.  
I want to thank Rabbi Michael Dubitzky who enlightened me concerning Rav Alpert's position in his article in YU's Sukkot-to-Go publication.  So, it was on my mind during the first days of chag.  Then I noticed that our Sages may have already hinted to this idea in the yom tov prayers. In every yom tov silent devotion, both the standard one used three times a day and musaf, we recite at the beginning of the fourth blessing:  You have chosen us (b'chartanu) from all the nations, You have loved (ahavta) us, and favored (ratzita) us, and raised us above (romamtanu) all other tongues, and sanctified us (kidashtanu) with Your mitzvoth, and You have brought us close (keiravtanu), our King, to your service, and Your great and holy name upon us You have called (karata).  These seven verbs, I believe, represent the seven annual days of yom tov celebration, from our being chosen at Pesach until our being called by God's name at Shmini Atzeret.  This yearly cycle is a process of our ascending to higher spiritual levels through the observance of these festivals.  This shift to higher, more exalted status may be hinted at by the customs of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.  During the parade of lulavim while reciting  Hoshanot we march around a Torah scroll in the center of our sanctuary, but during the Hakafot of Simchat Torah the Torah scrolls march around the shul encircling us.  
On this special day we have become the focus of God's holy attention, may we merit and enjoy this great honor.  Chag Sameach!    

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Walk Article-Sukkot



Rabbi David Walk


                Sukkot is known as zman simchateinu or the time of our joy in rabbinic literature.  And there's a lot of truth in that assessment.  After all this is the harvest festival, and since historically most people were farmers this was the season of their greatest joy.  Nowadays, even though few of us are farmers we still find this the most joyous of festivals.  This may be because of the relief we feel after the ordeal of the Days of Awe, or it could be that our kids have gone back to school.  Of course that last one doesn't work for me as a teacher.  Some might just enjoy the meals taken in the pleasant confines of our sukkah.  However, for me it's always the memories of sitting in the sukkah of my youth.  It was during Sukkot that I began feeling my connection to Judaism.  Those memories of becoming a traditional Jew are strongest while relaxing in the shade of my sukkah.    The Jewish nation may have accepted the Torah on Shavuot, but for me it was on Sukkot, and I relive that experience every year.

                It seems that all of God's Creation collaborates to make this the finest week of the year.  The only exceptions are those pesky bees.  So, why would anyone want to disturb the pure bliss of Sukkot?  Well, it does appear that our Sages are just such curmudgeons.  They decided to have us read Kohelet or Ecclesiastes on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Sukkot.  What a bummer!  Now for my gentle readers who have never paid attention to this text as it is speedily chanted in our houses of worship, and I'm sure there are many such individuals out there, perhaps you should stop reading at this point and continue to dwell in your idyllic inattention.  But for the rest of us, I will attempt to deal with this problem.

                What is the essence of this cantankerous text? 'What does anyone gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:3)?' 'The dead are better off than the living (4:2).'  'For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten (9:5).'  'Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"(12:1).'   And for those who haven't gotten the message yet:  "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Preacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."(1:2).' 

This is very depressing material!  So, why do the Sages have us teach it?  Actually, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) states that, at first, the sages wished to hide the work (i.e. they refused to endow it with the sanctity of sacred Scripture) because some of its statements contradict the Torah and are even self contradictory. Eventually, however, the book was accepted as a biblical book on the grounds that it begins and ends with 'the fear of heaven.' In other words, for all the book's skepticism and pessimism about the human condition, the teaching which shines through is: "Fear God and keep His commandments" (12: 13).

But in case it's an odd choice of text for our most joyful festival.    Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe explains in his Levush ( Orah Hayyim 663:2) published in Poland in 1590-1604 that we read Kohelet on Sukkot "because it is zeman simhateinu , (the season of our rejoicing) and Kohelet urges people to rejoice in their portion and not run after increased wealth. A person who enjoys what he has, it is a gift from God". Others suggest that too much joy and celebration brings us to light headedness and frivolity, and Kohelet brings us back to a more balanced approach to life.  Perhaps we read a book which talks so much of death before the coming winter season which resembles the onset of mortality.

However, I'd like to suggest a different point of view based on the word hevel.  This enigmatic word appears many times in Kohelet, and I translated it above as 'meaningless.'  It's also been translated as:  futility, pointlessness, and, the most popular, vanity.   None of those are the real meaning. It really means 'breath' or 'vapor'.  Go out on cold winter's morn and see your breath; that's hevel.  So, perhaps, the best translation would be 'fleeting.'

Now I believe that we can begin to understand the Preacher's point.  Life is fleeting and so are its joys.  If our only goal is to enjoy these ephemeral pleasures, then life would indeed be a terrible waste.  But we know that going to the house of mourning is greater than going to the place of celebration, because we take a longer perspective.  We're like this quote from Soren Kierkegaard who once wrote: "It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice."  The true joy comes from understanding a greater truth:  Our importance derives from our place in an eternal chain of tradition.

All the promises God gave to our ancestors were for their future progeny.  Avraham never saw the fulfillment of the Covenant between the Parts; Moshe never saw the Promised Land; Isaiah never saw the return he predicted.  Now we can understand the haftorah for the first day of Sukkot.  We read about the future redemption of the Jewish people.  Our joy is related to our faith in the destiny of Israel.

                Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that Kohelet is a meditation on mortality.  And that's true.  While we sit in our fragile hut, we sense our role in this great saga.  We rejoice in the faith that God provides us with what we need to carry on this mission.  We're not rejoicing in what we have harvested and garnered, but in God's sustaining us to come one step closer to the fulfillment of our ancestor's dreams.  We celebrate the image of our grandchildren living our grandparents' dream.  Maybe, that's what it means to be Jewish, and it makes us happy.