It is hard to envision Sukkoth on the other side of the High Holidays because of the monumental place of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the American Jewish holiday cycle. I composed a sermon a couple of decades ago bemoaning the slow death of Highway 66, which holds an iconic place in the American imagination. The article rued the demise of the charming and distinctive locales now no longer encountered because of the interstate system. Little towns, motels and restaurants are bypassed by truckers, bikers and tourists as they make their way to the west coast. “Sometimes,” I wrote, “the holiday cycle is the same as the Jewish calendar. The interstate highways of Passover, Hanukah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are travelled so well by so many, but the little locales of the other holidays in Judaism get such short shrift and are sadly victim to this infrastructure.”
But Sukkoth is an important holiday in its own right. Back in the time of the Bible, it was really important and even bigger than Passover as a pilgrimage holiday. In the Rabbinic literature it was called “HaHaG,” the quintessential holiday. It no longer has quite that turbo-charge today, although it is still a very big deal in Jerusalem. Sukkoth’s Kohain rite in the Kotel Plaza is like no other spiritual moment. Still, Sukkoth has many things going for it, running on multiple cylinders, and therefore I commend it. Here are some facts in honor of the seven days of Sukkoth:
Sukkoth is the first “local” stop on the Jewish calendar year, off the beaten route of the interstate holidays. Get off at this exit and enjoy the color and vibrancy of this unique calendar moment. Help us celebrate it Yontif morning, October 5th and 6th and on Hoshana Rabbah morning, Wednesday, October 11 at 7 am.
ברכת כהנים THE PRIESTLY BLESSING
One of the most beautiful customs of our shul, not common for Conservative shuls, is Duchaning (in Yiddish, Duchanen), which we do in the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you haven’t experienced this lovely ceremony performed by our Kohanim (Kohens), I encourage you to stay through Musaf to do so. There is a special melody in this ceremony in which the Kohanim repeat the words of the Blessing of Aaron, the High Priest, from the book of Numbers (Yevarecha). We uniquely adapt the tune to melodic lines on Rosh Hashanah evening, and the antiphonal response, led by the Cantor, is quite haunting and joyful.
Why do we Duchan? Numbers, Chapter 6, instructs Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites with the verse “Bless you, guard you…May Hashem lift His face to you and be gracious to you…May Hashem give you peace…” Since every Kohen is a descendant of Aaron, they are to repeat the blessing for every congregation of ten. Kohanim count as a part of the 10 congregants in the minyan that they are blessing. If a minyan dissolves while they bless the congregation, they continue and conclude it. If the Chazzan is the only Kohen, he is allowed to move from his stand on the bima and face the congregation to bless them. During the repetition, he must wash and remove his shoes before beginning the standing devotion. If he is not the only Kohen, he remains in his place.
Why is this custom of blessing the people called duchening? Because the word for bima, or raised platform, in Aramaic is Duchan. The Kohanim ascend the platform as a mediating symbol between the congregation and the Holy Ark. At this moment, they are a conduit for blessing. The Kohen raises his hands and spreads his fingers in a “V” shape. His hands, therefore, form two Shins (Hebrew letter ש), which equals 600. His fingers are ten and his blessings are three, which equal 613–the number of mitzvoth in the Torah. Talmud Hagigah mentions that one should not look at the fingers of the Kohen as they bless, as doing so will “weaken the eyes.” Probably this was so the Kohen, in feeling one’s gaze, would not become distracted. It is not correct, however, to turn around, as many do, and show their backs to the Kohanim as they bless us. Many rabbinic authorities label this a “superstitious custom.” It is far better to face them and simply look downward or place one’s head under one’s own tallit as one receives the blessing.
How many times a year is it customary to do the Kohen blessing with Duchenen? In traditional congregations of the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel), it should be done on Yom Tovim only (the five major holidays.) In the Ashkenazic congregation of Safed, Israel, it is done on major holidays and each Shabbat, and so, too, in many Ashkenazic congregations outside of Jerusalem. Sfardic synagogues in all of Israel do it every day. Many liberal congregations have discontinued it, considering it a vestige of the past and attached to sacrificial rituals.
There are some interesting facts of Duchening. We take our shoes off, not because the High Priest came in bare feet for the Yom Kippur ceremony, but because the Shulchan Aruch determined that a shoe lace untied can cause a fall, or an effort to tie an untied shoe lace nullifies the hand washing. This would prevent the shoe lace handler from saying the blessing, causing people to think him impure. To avoid this, it was decided that all would take off their shoes before blessing the congregation. A Kohen who doesn’t wish to say the blessing, perhaps because he dislikes someone in the congregation, should get over it! If a Kohen is impure after being in a cemetery, he should intentionally remove himself before the Kohanim begin to ascend the bima.
First and foremost, I would like to say how happy I am to be here at the East Northport Jewish Center. Everyone I have met thus far has gone out of their way to make me feel exceptionally welcome. Thank you.
I would like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit about myself. I’m born and raised in West Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and grew up at Congregation B’nai Moshe, a Conservative synagogue. From a young age, my relationship to Judaism has always been important to me. My father decided, when I was about 7, that we were going to go to shul each Shabbat. That experience solidified in me a ritual pattern that has stayed with me to this day. Following my Bar Mitzvah, I began working in our synagogue religious school, giving me my first taste of congregational life. I would continue working in religious school all the way through my collegiate career. In High School I was very active in chorus and theatre, and therefore, it was no surprise to my parents when I decided to apply to music programs for college. I settled on Kalamazoo College, a small 1200 student liberal arts school in Western Michigan. I was one of 4 music majors in my graduating class, and the only one without a double-major. While at Kalamazoo College I had the opportunity to explore, and through my first-year seminar professor, became very active in the autism community of Kalamazoo. To this day, I see that experience as an eye-opening event for me that solidified my way to the Cantorate, in that it fostered an appreciation for working with people. Following my graduation from Kalamazoo College, I attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to prepare for my Cantorial career. Following my investiture, I had the privilege to serve Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach, Florida, now Temple Torat Emet, in Boynton Beach, for 5 years. There, I took great pride in preparing B’nai Mitzvah students, seeing to the cultural programming of the synagogue through special shabbatot, and concert programming, which I hope to bring here to my new home in East Northport.
If there is anything I can assist you with on your own Jewish journey, I’m happy to provide support. Learning to read Torah, Haftorah, and Megillot, and leading services are just a few of the topics where I can help. I hope to meet many more of you in the coming holiday season. Thank you all again for the warm welcome.
This summer, help us and help yourselves by committing to our regular Minyan
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich and your mama's good lookin’
So hush little baby, please don't cry…
One of these mornin's, you gonna rise up singin'
Spread your wings and you'll take the sky
Until that mornin' there's a nothin' can harm you
With Mommy and Daddy standin' by
–Words of Porgy and Bess that conjure up the easy days of summer. Some are of the opinion, no doubt, that the summertime months are a time when we should have a break from it all. In fact, congregants have sometimes asked, "Don't you basically close up for the summer?" The answer is NO, there is not much programming until the High Holidays and the school year starts, but the shul never closes up. VeShiviti Hashem negdi tamid…we must hold up God and faith before us at all times–and especially at times when less of us are around!
In our timely Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, the spies of each tribe expand their souls. They do so, says the Midrash, by each being infused with the soul of one of Jacob’s sons, according to which tribe to which they belong– the head of the tribe of Naphtali receives Naphtali’s soul and the head of the tribe of Reuven receives Reuven's soul. But apparently that is not enough. Those spies, fearful of what they see, come back and tell the people there is no hope. Yet two of the spies receive additional reinforcement that gives them optimism and courage. Caleb goes to Chevron and stretches himself out upon the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and “absorbs” their faith, while Hoshea is given an exta yud in his name and becomes Yehoshua– getting a dose of God's name. Only they, Joshua and Caleb have courage and hope in the end, and they are the only ones of their generation that enter the land of Israel.
This, connecting ourselves to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is what we do when we pray together as a minyan. The very first lines of our Shemoneh Esrai, when we say “their God is our God,” gives us that additional dose of their faith and makes it our own. Its not enough to only connect to our ancestors’ faith, however. We say Elokeinu ve Lokai Avotainu, "Our God and the God of our Ancestors," making God our own in our generation. Declaring this regularly in a community of faith is essential to experience God as our own. The intent of our regular prayer is to receive the double reinforcement of both Caleb and Joshua. That is the potential that regular prayer, “davenning,” can offer. Does this happen for us all the time when we daven? No, I cannot make that claim. But it cannot happen at that special moment if we don't make prayer regular.
I remind you that the shul doesn't close down for the summer. The shul's pulse never stops. But we need davenners or it will. Please take a moment to consider how important regular communal prayer is, not just for those saying Kaddish, but also for each and every one of us. Don't let the pulse stop, particularly when the summer months approach while many are a way. Select two or three extra days each month when you or someone in your household can commit to coming. Put it on your calendar. If our membership of well over 200 families did this, there would never be a shortage of minyanaires, and there will always be a strong pulse at ENJC–summer, winter, spring and fall.
So here are additional words to Porgy and Bess, a la Rabbi Ian:
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Every evening, you're gonna rise up praying
Spread your wings and take to the sky
And when you daven, there's nothing can harm you
With your fellow minyanaires standing by!
Some thoughts on “Receiving Torah”
May 30 was our Tikun Leil Shavuot, and on June 1, we received the Torah, standing at our seats, as we read and trumpeted the moments when our ancestors accepted Torah with a triumphant “we will do and we will hear!” Tradition tells us that so powerful were the words of the Ten Commandments that each commandment blew the Israelites back 19 parsangs (historical unit of distance). Their souls were drawn from their bodies and God would not allow their souls to receive any new commandments. This sequential resuscitation was apparently very grueling, so they asked Moses to go up the mountain, into the fog, to receive the Torah for them. Rav Nachman of Bratzlav points out that God really wished all the people to climb the mountain with Moses and converge at the apex of Sinai, and if that had happened, we would have found a return to full redemption and purity (“when the Shofar sounds louder and louder…they should climb the mountain”). But the opportunity was lost and we must settle for understanding the Torah, not directly from the source, but through interpretation and insight.
Rabbi Levi Ischak asks the question, “Why, in beginning the counting of the Omer, don’t we recite the Shechehiyanu prayer?” The answer he gives is that the counting begins the journey and one must say a Shechehiyanu only at the end of a journey in the reception of Torah. But the reception of the Torah is, really, a never-ending proposition. Every Jew is called upon to have an open heart, to learn something new–something more nuanced and refined. Our Torah education is endless in each life and for all time. That is why there is no holiday called Hag Kabbalat Hatorah (holiday to welcome the Torah into our lives). Only Hag Natan Torah (holiday of being given the Torah). God gives the Torah endlessly. Our reception of it must be each and every day, with a newly opened mind and heart.
Years ago, here and in Israel, scientists and mathematicians were hard at work in cracking the secret code of the Bible. A book was released that got everyone excited, a New York Times bestseller, Bible Code, by Michael Drosnin, who is a Wall Street Journal reporter. Inspired by the work of Prof. Eliyahu Ripps, he suggested a formula to understand the present and predict the future. With the help of systematic computer analysis, all the letters of the Torah were scanned backwards and forwards, in a consistent pattern, to yield messages. Hits showed famous names like “Rabin” and “Kennedy,” and important natural disasters. Even the Persian Gulf War was foretold! This gave a new meaning to the words of our sages, “turn it and turn it, 'cause all is in it.” But that misses the point. I am reminded of the use of the High Priest’s Urim and Thummim (divine oracle on the High Priest’s breastplate), with letters lighting up. For my money, I think the words of Isaiah, the trenchant insight of Jeremiah, and the mystical imagination of Ezekiel, were far more penetrating.
A sage commented on the words from our Torah, “Moses would speak to God, and God would answer him in thunder (Hashem Yaanenu beKol),” saying, “Moses would speak and God would answer him in his own voice!” All of us must study the words of Torah carefully and repeatedly, but true wisdom is not acquired by how much Torah you can master and retain, how much Torah or Talmud a person can get through. Rather, wisdom comes from how much the Torah and the Talmud goes through you! Our experience and our thought processes help make Torah new each day! The insights you bring to the text are the Torah coming “through your voice.”