Tag Archives: sukkot

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Ma’aseh sheyaha, as the Rabbis say – “Here’s a story for you.”

Several years ago, I was visiting Manhattan’s West Side Judaica -– one of my regular pilgrimages to a place of Jewish books, s’forim, as they are known: not the commercialized products reviewed in the New York Times, but arcane Hebrew texts from long ago that get newly reissued on occasion. With Passover arriving in a week, I decided also to buy a matzah tray for my kitchen table.

Noiach, the lovely man I deal with there, showed me several – one of them particularly beautiful, but so beyond my budget that I opted for something plainer and less expensive. As he began wrapping it, however, I changed my mind.

“No” I said, “I’ll take the expensive one, l’kuv’d yont’f “– literally, “in honor of the holiday.”

“Yes,” he nodded, knowingly, “l’kuv’d yont’f.”

I have no idea where I learned to say “l’kuv’d” anything – maybe from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents when I was little and still spoke the language. Whatever the case, the word l’kuv’d, which I hadn’t used in decades, somehow rose from deep inside my Jewish consciousness – a reflection of a value Jews hold dear.

L’kuv’d is the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew likhvod , “in honor of.” In context here, it meant honoring the holiday by beautifying its observance. The word occurs everywhere, however, in the Jewish conversation of the centuries and in all those s’forim I mentioned. Likhvod hamet (“in honor of the dead”) describes the Jewish instinct to show honor to the dead not just the living. “Honor” is what Torah commands us to show parents and teachers. Embarrassing people is forbidden because it contravenes k’vod habriyot (“the honor due God’s creatures”); we destroy places of idolatry, not for God’s sake, but because their existence is an embarrassment to the people who built them. We Jews are a culture of honor.

How spectacular! Noiach (from the traditionalist world of the Sanz Chasidim) and I (a Reform rabbi) may seem to have little in common. But I justify buying an expensive matzah tray by saying l‘kuv’d yunt’f” and Noiach knows exactly what I mean. Because both of us read and revere those s’forim that he sells and I buy, we share the rock-bottom Jewish commitment to a culture of honor – and we treat each other accordingly.

Reinforcing our loyalty to this culture of honor is central to Sukkot, which features our holding together “the four species”: the etrog; and the palm, myrtle, and willow branches that constitute the lulav. Those s’forim that we Jews pour over liken them to the Jewish People bound together as one despite our differences, likhvod hashem – “in honor of God,” whose People we are.

In this culture of honor, we learn from one another. The very expression, “culture of honor” came from Jonathan Rosenblatt, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, who taught it to some 300 synagogue representatives from all movements convened by Synagogue 2000, an organization dedicated to transforming synagogues into moral and spiritual centers for the 21st century. We shared insight, music, and learning across denominations because as different as we are, we all insist that what God wants for organizational life, and for relationships generally, is honor.

The opposite of a culture of honor, says Rabbi Rosenblatt, is a culture of blame, where people cover their own faults by blaming others. It might also be a culture of nastiness or humiliation where we build ourselves up by tearing others down. But blame, nastiness and humiliation are not the Jewish way.

Sh’ma yisrael, we Jews say; and then: barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed, which can be translated as “Blessed is the Name [of God]: the glory of His Kingdom is eternal; or better: “The honor [that is typical] of His Kingdom is what’s lasting.” To be a Jew is to construct together a culture that models what the world can be: however much we differ, we treat each other with honor.

 

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Time To Go Back To Work

If you google sukkat shalom (“sukkah of peace”), you get hundreds of references, most of them titles of synagogues and lyrics for songs. The synagogue names bespeak a deep-seated desire for places of respite. The song lyrics acknowledge the metaphor’s origin, our nightly synagogue prayer that God “spread over us Your sukkah of peace.”  We call the prayer Hashkiveinu, “Lie us down,” a perfect nighttime meditation for that twilight moment when the daily grind succumbs (we hope) to nightly rest.

Tradition connects this sukkah of peace to Amos, 9:11, God’s promise to “raise up the fallen sukkah of David,” a glorious picture of the end of time when Israel’s travails will have come to an end. The nighttime Hashkiveinu reflects this very “raising up” by following “Lie us down in peace” with, “Raise us up to life.” Here too, it is possible to see a messianic theme, relief from exilic oppression, just as Amos had foreseen.

That can hardly have been the prayer’s original intent, however. It is a mistake to think that even people in the Middle Ages lost much sleep over cataclysmic metaphysical issues like the eventual restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the coming of the messiah. These eschatological metaphors were appealing because they provided ways to ponder the more immediate problems that prey on our minds and rob us of sleep: “disease, violence, want, and agony” (dever, cherev, ra’av  v’yagon), for example. Hashkiveinu was, first and foremost, a bedtime prayer reflecting the hope for a night of peaceful sleep.

Its bedtime image of the sukkah came from the holiday that ends this week. The simple joy of sitting in a sukkah and consuming festive meals in the ambience of nature’s fullness is a perfect antidote to the harried lives we normally pursue. Whether in our nightly prayers or in the temporary booth we call a sukkah, we are invited to pause for inner reflection and outer quietude.

But as we have seen, that is only half the image of Hashkiveinu — and half the image also of the sukkah. Like it or not, “Lie us down in peace” becomes “Raise us up to life.” If “Lie us down in peace” addresses the real nighttimes we endure, then “Raise us up to life” speaks to the real daytimes we confront. A nightly wish for peace is fine, but when morning dawns, we awaken to the real world of work and worry. So too, we should not get too comfortable in our sukkah of peace. Like peace itself, the sukkah is deliberately made to be temporary, a feeble structure that cannot last. When Sukkot ends, we face the autumn preamble to the inevitable blast of winter.

Sukkot peace is not supposed to become soporific, dulling us to the tasks that will follow. We have every right to enjoy a week of languor in the sukkah, but not at the expense of deluding ourselves about what lies beyond it. Words have many opposites, some healthy, some not. An unhealthy opposite to “tranquility” is “anxiety”; a healthy one is “urgency.” When life resumes at the end of this Sukkot week, it should do so with some urgency. Life matters, after all, and life consists of the real world outside the sukkah’s walls. Both peace and struggle are part of the human package; we don’t get one without the other.

Human nature suggests we would prefer evading life’s exigencies. I am not thinking of such immediate challenges as earning a living, confronting sorrow, building relationships, and just plain making it through each day; these impinge so noticeably upon us that we can hardly avoid them (although some of us try to). My concern is the larger issues that we delude ourselves into discounting, if not downright disregarding – the fractures in our country, aging of our Jewish institutions, and dangers to our planet. The life that greets us when the sukkah comes down is not an altogether pretty thing.

Not that we should despair; there is much about the world to celebrate, and celebrate we do, when we emerge from the cocoon of the sukkah for the joy of Simchat Torah; and recollect again how “In the beginning,  God created the heavens and the earth” and found it “good.” As we take up residence in the world outside the sukkah, it is this image of natural and intended goodness that should consume us. When sitting in the sukkah ends, we “rise up to life” in a world whose continued goodness depends on us. The holiday month of Tishri gives way to Cheshvan, a month known best for having no holidays in it at all. It will be time to go back to work.