Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


Back in 1977, the first night of Sukkot was accompanied by rain and high winds. We got to eat in the Sukkah that first night just fine, but next morning many Sukkot had been destroyed. One Sukkah in Monsey, NY, literally just blew away, never to be seen again. I just hope that the Munchkins enjoyed it as much as Dorothy's house. The point is that these temporary dwellings are by their nature flimsy. The only rule is that they withstand 'a normal wind (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim, 628:2). The gusts of the early morning of September 28, 1977 didn't constitute a normal wind. But is that the ideal Sukkah? What is the ultimate Sukkah supposed to be like? 

Where to begin? The Torah doesn't tell us much about Sukkah construction. Rabbi Soloveitchik once described Sukkot as the holiday of Torah She'Ba'al Peh (the Oral Law), because the Torah itself is so sparse with details about the building codes. The three walls, must let in rain criteria are purely Oral tradition. Really all we're told is, 'For a seven-day period you shall live in booths (Aramaic Targum: M'TALAYA, 'shade givers'). Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your future generations should know that I caused the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God (Vayikra 23:42-43). The lack of clarity in this verse spawned a famous disagreement between Rabbi Eliezar and Rabbi Akiva over whether these were real booths or represent God's Clouds of Glory, which accompanied the Jews in the desert (Tractate Sukkah 11b). 

Actually, it makes no difference, because the Torah demands structures which remind us of the desert experience. These huts do the job as either desert booths or fluffy clouds, because we're obviously supposed to use our imaginations. When you lie back in your Sukkah on the first night of the Chag and see that big, full moon peeking between the branches, it's easy to imagine the desert sky all those millennia ago. I've always felt that this is more emotionally evocative of that generation than the carefully orchestrated customs of the Pesach Seder. 

But back to my original question: What's the perfect Sukkah? Is it the one with finest furniture or fanciest furnishings? The Talmud says, 'All Israel should merit to sit in one Sukkah (Sukkah 27b).' Wow! I saw 90,000 Jews in Met Life Stadium for the Siyum Hashas. Okay, that's less than 1% of the world's Jews. I can't begin to imagine a structure one hundred times that large, or imagine every rabbi agreeing to its kashrut. What's the Gemara talking about? 

Clearly, it's a metaphor. But for what? My son and a few friends built a trebuchet (Look it up!) in high school, and the whole school went out to a field to see this medieval machine at work. After some guffaws at their struggles, they finally got a projectile (actually, a five-pound pumpkin) to soar through the crisp Autumn air. One of the rebbeim gushed, 'This is no longer a school project. It's a metaphor!' And, of course, we know what he meant. Whether Punkin' Chunckin' or Sukkah buildin', every great metaphor is a metaphor for life. 

When we moon-gaze through our branches, we're just a few days separated from Yom Kippur. The goal of that awesome date is, of course, SELICHA, MECHILA, KAPPARAH (forgiveness, pardon, atonement). The purpose of that immense spiritual effort of the Ten Days of Repentance is to bring us to a state of Teshuva. On the eleventh of Tishre we should all feel like BA'ALEI TESHUVA, penitents. The test of that status is our feelings for others. Sin separates; repentance repairs. We should feel that since all of our transgressions have been banished, we have removed all barriers between us and every other Jew, and, hopefully, every human. We have become AGUDA ACHAT, one unified group. The roadblock to sitting under one roof isn't architectural; it's sociological. When we say there's no tent large enough to contain all the Jews, that's not a discussion about tents. It's a heartbreaking discussion about how we feel about each other. 

This idea of AGUDA ACHAT is also the famous metaphor of the four species. Each vegetation which we shake during the festival represents another personality type, but we hold them all together representing the goal of unity within our people and our world. 

The Sfat Emet (1892) teaches that the essential Teshuva actually occurs on Sukkot. He begins quoting Yeshayahu, 'Your sins were like a big cloud, but I wiped them all away. Your sins are gone, like a cloud that disappeared into thin air. I rescued and protected you, so come back to Me (44:22).' This is the authentic Teshuva, not out of fear, but love. Teshuva for no other reason than to return to God's presence. As the Rebbe said, 'It's only when one yearns to return to God, to awaken the love which was hidden by the sins, that's complete Teshuva.' Sukkot is the proof that we have returned to God. When we gaze through our SCHACH, we imagine all the clouds blurring our relationship with God are dispersing. The 'gathering clouds of Elul' have become the dissipating clouds of Tishre. 

During Sukkot we can assess the success of the Teshuva process. Are we closer to God? Have the animosity and friction between the Jews been assuaged? We can gage the outcome as we sit in our Sukkot and wave our LULAV. 

Now we can understand the prayer we recite as we sadly depart our Sukkot: May it be Your will, Lord our God, and God of our ancestors just as I fulfilled the mitzva of sitting in the Sukkah, so, next year may I merit to sit in the Sukkah made of the skin of Leviathan. It's not about a carcass. It's about the unity of our people.  

Chag Sameach!  

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Walk Article


Yom Kippur-5779 

Rabbi David Walk 


It's hard to be funny on Yom Kippur. Believe me, I've tried. Even though I've always considered myself an educator rather than a rabbi, there were many years in which I did rabbinic type stuff on the High Holidays. So, there were many desperate attempts to rivet the attention of those congregants who basically only came to shul on these august occasions (let's ignore the fact that it was usually September).  I've used props, visual aids, hand-outs like magnets, rulers, mirrors, faux coins (They were my favorite. It was a plastic disc which read 'This world was created for me' on one side, and 'I am dust and ashes' on the other.). All this energy expended with various levels of success, was for one purpose: To impress upon those present that Yom Kippur is an extraordinary opportunity afforded us by God. Please, allow me to describe the nature of this unique Divine gift. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik discussed the special nature of Yom Kippur in his essay Mah Dodcha M'dod. This phrase is a quote from Shir HaShirim (5:9) and can be translated, 'How is your Beloved more than any other beloved.' Scoffers ask that question to the Jewish nation. What's so special about your God? The Rav turned that question on its head in this eulogy for his uncle (DOD), Reb Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik. But before he got to the greatness of his uncle, the Brisker Rav, the Rav compared the experience of Rosh Hashanah with that of Yom Kippur. 

On Rosh Hashanah, God emerges from the fog of existence to reveal the Royal Divine presence. The majestic shofar blast announces the Monarch's appearance on the royal throne. It's a coronation! As we declare in Psalm 47, which we recite seven times before the shofar service: God ascends through the shofar blasts...to alight upon the royal throne (verse 6 & 9). The Rav compares this to the thunder and lightning (and shofar blasts) of Har Sinai on the morning when the Torah was given. Moshe Rabbeinu that morning basked in the reflected glory of the pyrotechnics of the Divine Revelation. It was awesome! Rosh Hashanah recreates bombastic events from the Creation of humanity to the that day when the Great Shofar will be blown and those who were lost and banished will again worship the Lord n the holy mountain in Jerusalem (Yishayahu 27:13). 

In contrast, Yom Kippur recreates the experience of Moshe Rabbeinu when the second Tablets were given. On that day, 'God descended in a cloud and stood there (Shmot 34:5). At that moment, God. as it were, shrunk to human proportions to comfort and forgive the wayward nation. The Rav describes the converse circumstances of Moshe that day: Alone, he climbed the cold and steep slope. Even Yehoshua, his constant companion, didn't join him...Torches were not burning and no pure, puffy clouds adorned him. The mountain frozen in its solitude, empty and desolate. Moshe climbed, looked this way and that, seeking a God Who was not to be found. It was as if, the heavens had never opened and God had never appeared. He searched every crevice and hidden passes in the silent stone; no light sparkled. A black cloud and dread path disconnected him from God. 

Brrr! A desolate and desperate Moshe then had the most amazing revelation. God shared with him the most intimate glimpse into Divine reality. We call this communication the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Compassion: The Lord, the Lord! A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness, and of good faith. keeping kindnesses for a thousand generations, bearing all crime, trespass and iniquity. And cleanses...(verses 5 &6). This formula becomes the mantra of Yom Kippur. We've been reciting it for weeks in Selichot and now on Yom Kippur, it becomes a crescendo at Ne'ila, when many of us recite it thirteen times. 

Rav Elchanan Samet of Yeshivat Har Etziyon has a marvelous piece on their outstanding website (VBM). He quotes the Rav and then explains that King David was telling us very much the same idea in Psalm 27 (L'DAVID ORI). In this remarkable poem, Rav Samet explains that the first half (through verse 6) describes the Rosh Hashanah experience and the rest describes Yom Kippur. I had never noticed that duality before, and I'm thankful to him for his insight to this wonderful poem I've been reciting for years. 

In the second half of the poem, King David is clearly alone like Moshe Rabbeinu on Yom Kippur. He says, 'Do not hide Your face from me; do not put Your servant away in anger, You have been my help. Do not abandon me or forsake me, O God of my salvation (verse 9).' Then comes, for me, the most traumatic moment of the Psalm, 'for my mother and my father have abandoned me.' Yes, our loving parents at some point abandon us. The first time when one of them removes thier loving hand from the back of the bicycle seat, then we they move to Florida and absolutely when they pass on. So, David turns to God and says, HOREINI HASHEM. Now, that's normally translated as 'guide me' or 'teach me'. But I think it truly means 'Parent me', from the word HOREH meaning parent. God become my mommy and my daddy, please. 

Rabbi Akiva was teaching us this idea when he wrote the prayer AVINU MALKEINU. On Rosh hashanh God is our mighty Monarch; on Yom Kippur God is our passionate Parent. 

The essence of Rosh Hashanah is the communal coronation of God through the shattering blasts of the shofar. The essence of Yom Kippur is the private recitation of confession. Rosh Hashanah is about public adulation for the Monarch. Yom Kippur is the lonely supplication of a spurned love. On Yom Kippur, just like Moshe Rabbeinu, we scale the barren mountain searching desperately for the Divine love. It's lonely. And like Moshe Rabbeinu and David Hamelech, we discover that we were never abandoned and alone. 

G'mar Chatima Tova