The weather was eerily similar to the same date on the calendar twenty years before: A bright and sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, a soft breeze, and if you heard no news from the outside world, you might think you were experiencing a slice of heaven, a taste of the world to come. As the sun was setting on the day of September 11, Rabbi Drill and I stood at the podium, surrounded by public servants in uniform, and offered the 23rd Psalm to the hundreds gathered on the lawn of Orangetown’s Town Hall. The psalm, we explained, is offered for those mourning the loss and seeking the presence of their loved ones; for those who wish to feel God’s presence in dark times; and for those who turn to friends and community as a source of strength and comfort.
Looking out at the crowd before us, I was struck by the realization—especially as the names of the fallen from our community were read—that I was not certain whether any family members of the 9/11 victims were actually with us to commemorate the day. This feeling only served to reinforce my belief that, at some level, the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy robbed individuals who suffered loss the opportunity to grieve and have their personal losses acknowledged by the community. The tragedy became one that belonged to our country, and in the processing of our collective trauma we lost sight, to some degree, of the individual stories of loss, grief and mourning. Stories of heroic first responders, of courageous acts of selfless sacrifice, and of how united our country stood in the days that followed continue to shape the way we remember. We focus far less on the stories of the families that were broken by the sudden loss of a spouse, child, parent and sibling.
The circle of subsumed individual stories expands further. Two weeks before 9/11, a dear personal friend to me and many others, a beloved husband, father of two young children, son and brother, died very suddenly while on vacation with his family. Bruce Cowen was an integral community builder in our congregation. His death left his family traumatized and reeling. The shock left many members of our community devastated. But two weeks later, when the World Trade Center fell, everyone was stricken. The loss belonged to us all. And the processing of individual grief, and the communal support that was supposed to accompany that process, was somehow cut short. Some of us never fully processed Bruce’s death as a result, and some of us could never fully process the full scope of 9/11 because of our personal sense of loss.
In the Jewish tradition, comforting the mourner is a communal obligation. There are times, however, when (to paraphrase two of my favorite fictional characters) the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When a death occurs during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, for example, formal mourning for the deceased is postponed until after Simchat Torah. If the death occurrs before the festival and shiva begins, it is truncated with the onset of the holiday. Obviously, the bereaved is in an emotional state of mourning; the communal obligation to comfort the mourner, however, is outweighed by the communal obligation to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.
I understand the tension inherent in this rule, especially as a rabbi who is charged with leading the communal celebration of the holiday. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sometimes the needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many. Tragic loss, in my opinion, is one of those times.
That’s why, when remembering six million, it is so important to remember one story. That’s why, on every 9/11, I call a congregant who stood at Ground Zero and witnessed horror all around him. That’s why, on Bruce’s yahrzeit every year, I reach out to the ones most immediately and profoundly affected by his absence.
May we never forget, even as we are called upon to celebrate life. May we never forget the opportunity we are given, individually, to bring comfort, solace, and the blessing of memory to those who may only remember their pain.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
One of my childhood friends told me that he decided to go to a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that he could say prayers for my healing. Knowing that he is a non-believing, non-practicing Jewish person, I was very touched by his impulse.
But, I wanted to warn him against his plan. Instead, I let him find his own way.
Afterward, I called him to find out how it went.
He told me, “Honestly, this is why I never go to synagogue. I felt empty and lost and very lonely. I could not understand the prayers and they seemed to go on forever. I was to nervous to even say a prayer for you.”
I was not surprised. I told him, “It is not that synagogues are empty of spiritual space for prayer. As a novice, you just went on the wrong days.”
Trying to find a sense of peace, connection to God, and deep prayer experiences on the three most fearsome, awesome and busy days of the Jewish calendar is like trying to learn to speak French by sitting in on a college literature course taught entirely in French… or trying to learn to ice skate by gliding out onto the ice in the midst of a Stanley Cup playoff match.
And yet my old friend is not the only one who tries to pry open the treasure of Judaism once a year for three days. So many of us come to synagogue just for the High Holy Days, and as a rabbi, believe me, I am very glad to see you.
But every year, just five days after Yom Kippur, we enter the joyous festival of Sukkot and I wonder how to convince my fellow Jews to come on these days instead! We sing praises to God while shaking branches of the palm, myrtle, and willow together with an etrog (a lemon-like fruit). It’s inexplicably awesome! We line up with these agricultural treasures and parade around the synagogue singing to God, “Save us!” It’s crazy fun! Everyone is grinning because no one can exactly explain what we’re doing.
After these prayers, we go outside into a sukkah (a temporary booth) decorated with lights, flowers, fruit, paper chains and posters and partially open to the sky to study, eat and sing. We live in these booths for seven days.
At the end of this lovely festival of connecting to nature, community, and our best selves, we celebrate Simchat Torah (Monday evening 10/1 through Tuesday 10/2), rejoicing as we finish an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah and start again “In the Beginning”. We dance with the Torahs and ensure that everyone gets an honor to the Torah. It’s a raucous Jewish holiday of merriment and true joy.
Attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services is meaningful and important. I am not telling you not to do so. But only doing so means that you are missing out on some of the most spiritually connected moments in the Jewish calendar.
Think of it this way:
On Rosh Hashanah your Parent calls you into the study and says: “Let’s just take a look at how you’ve been behaving over the past year and make a plan for you to improve. Perhaps it will help us feel more connected.”
On Yom Kippur, your Parent calls you back into that study and says: “Okay, what have you done about showing some progress over the past 10 days?”
But on Sukkot, your Parent comes out to you in the backyard and says, “Let’s have a great celebration for a week. Let’s enjoy each other’s company and feel close to one another!”
Who would really want the disciplinarian Parent without the celebrating Parent as well?
I’ll take both! I hope you’ll join me.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Hevel: vanity, futility, meaninglessness, pointless striving. We may acquire wisdom; we may amass physical comforts and playthings. We may seek pleasure in food and drink; we may build palaces and establish monuments to our accomplishments. It’s all hevel, however, because ultimately everything has its season, and every person has his or her own time. This is the message of the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the megillah (scroll) that we read in conjunction with Sukkot, our festival of joy.
What if we read Kohelet as a treatise on love? After all, the megillot that we read on our other two major festivals are love stories! On Passover, the corresponding megillah we read is the Song of Songs, a story about unrequited love. On Shavuot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ruth, a story about consummated love. Moreover, Passover celebrates God’s courtship of the Jewish People; Shavuot celebrates the wedding of God and the Jewish People. I see this parallel progression from courtship to consummation as intentional. If so, what can we deduce about Sukkot and its relationship to Kohelet? How can we read hevel into the next stage of this relationship, into our attainment of joy?
Perhaps Kohelet’s conclusion–that life “under the sun” is meaningless–refers to the temporal, fleeting, finite pieces of ourselves and our relationships. The purest joy, however, is not connected to pleasures of food or wine, acquisitions or edifices. As exemplified by our experience of the sukkah, our greatest joy is found despite—if not in—our vulnerability, our authenticity, our simplicity. On Sukkot, we build a sukkah aware of its fragility, porousness, and temporary nature; we embrace it, love it and live in it anyway.
On Sukkot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ecclesiastes, a story about enduring love. Sukkot celebrates the journey the Jewish People took through a desert, with God as their ultimate shelter. We remember that the love at the heart of God’s relationship with the Jewish People is not sustained by the fireworks of courtship or by the pageantry of a wedding night. It is the love that emanates from a relationship that is resilient, that withstands the highs and the lows, that survives the wilderness wanderings, that thrives without necessarily reaching a promised land.
This season of our joy is rooted in a deep, enduring and timeless love that transcends what we build or acquire. It is the kind of joy that brings us peace and tranquility, and provides us the resilience and strength to go on dwelling in the midst of a tumultuous world.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
On Rosh Hashana at the Orangetown Jewish Center, I spoke about the worldwide refugee crisis. (Please contact me at Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org if you would like to see the full text of the sermon.) It was a difficult sermon to give because I did not have a decisive answer to offer to this overwhelming, multi-faceted issue. I spoke anyway because I believe that as a rabbi, I have a moral obligation to present the world as an integral part of Judaism. Judaism speaks to our lives, our beliefs, our decisions. I figured that if I am struggling with an issue, probably you are too.
The basic facts of the crisis: 21 million people in the world today have crossed international borders in search of refuge and more than 65 million have been displaced. Sixty five million means that 40,000 people are fleeing every day and 51% of them are children.
The despair that drives people to flee their homes is heartbreaking. Persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group, refugees survive terrible ordeals: torture, upheaval, perilous journeys, and tremendous loss.
The largest numbers of refugees are from Syria but crises exist as well for families threatened by civil war in Darfur, Myanmar Muslims in Burma, women and children in Central America fleeing gang violence and human trafficking, minorities in Sudan, Eretria and Afghanistan.
What do we do with overwhelming issues too big for any person or group of people? We take one action. We fix one piece of the problem. In the words of Ruth Messinger, “We do not indulge in the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
In my sermon, I pledged to continue learning and talking about refugees. Happily, many congregants have been in touch to say that they would like to take one action, to set aside the politics and help just one person or one family. Many have asked for specific ways to help.
Tzedaka: Give to http://www.hias.org/ or to http://www.womenforwomen.org. If you find compelling organizations doing resettlement work, please be in touch so that I can continue building a list of places to contribute.
Establish a working committee at the OJC: Engage a friend and offer to co-chair a Synagogue Welcome Campaign through HIAS, educating our community and establishing social justice work on behalf of refugees. More than 200 congregations already participate.
Get involved with individuals. Fill out the form at http://www.hias.org/volunteer and receive information about how you can help in one of these ways:
- Serving as an English language conversation partner with newly resettled refugees and asylum seekers (2-3 hours per week for a year)
- Participating in a letter writing program to asylum seekers in detention (once a month)
- Providing pro bono legal assistance to HIAS clients pursuing asylum or other humanitarian protection in the United States (commitment ranges from 25-150 hours, depending on case type)
- Providing volunteer translation or interpretation for HIAS legal cases (short term opportunities available)
Participate in resettling a family. Call HIAS in New York City: 212-967-4100.
Support a Jewish Yemenite refugee family here in Rockland County. Volunteer to drive to appointments, tutor for the Citizenship test, or help children with school work. Contact Leslie Goldress at email@example.com. You can donate to help with rent, tuition and buying clothing for the holidays; make checks payable to “Kahal Adat Teiman” and send to my attention at the OJC.
Organize a visit to MOMA to learn more. An exhibit called “Insecurities” is now showing through January 22, Insecurities Exhibit at MOMA addressing contemporary notions of shelter and calling into question what “safety” means.
Today, I spoke with our Religious School children about Sukkot as a time when we welcome guests into our sukkah. The refugee question seemed quite clear to them. One fifth grader said, “We have homes, they don’t. We have food, they don’t.” A third grader suggested inviting a refugee child into our sukkah. Our impermanent sukkah with a roof through which we see the sky offers more protection than many of the shelters in refugee camps.
The tagline of HIAS calls to us as individuals: Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish. Today we help refugees because we are Jewish.
There is plenty to do if we set aside the larger critical issue and consider the number – 21 million – as 21 million individual people. We can ask ourselves, what could we do for just one person?
With blessings for a meaningful start to the year 5777,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The Talmud teaches that those who don’t mourn ancient Jerusalem’s destruction will not merit rejoicing with her at her redemption. I have always understood this statement to mean that we can only truly appreciate the greatest joys in our lives if we have truly engaged with the sorrows in our lives. As the two extremes seemingly travel together within us, our saddest moments are buoyed by the knowledge that we have known—and will know again—pure joy. Similarly, our happiest moments are tinged with the knowledge that such joy can’t last forever, and that we will no doubt come to know sadness again.
One of the ancient rituals of the holiday of Sukkot is the celebration of water drawing and libations that took place in the time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud describes this ceremony as the epitome of joy, as water would be drawn from a well and poured over the sacrificial altar. As the rains fall today, on this third day of the holiday, we have the luxury of moving indoors; but our prayers for rain at this time despite wanting to be outside in the sukkah underline this sense of anxiety with which we live. We don’t control the weather—no matter what Rabbi Drill tells you about her powers—and we are dependent on a force beyond our control to bring just enough rain to be a blessing, a source of sustenance and joy. The same source of that joy, however, can also be a source of destruction and sadness. When it is time to draw from the well, there is no guarantee the well will be filled. We want to find the well filled when we need it, but not at the expense of the joy that is meant to accompany this holiday.
I liken this well to a well that exists within each of us. That well holds all our love. It is filled by how much love we give, and by how much we allow ourselves to be loved. In our times of greatest celebration, that love is easily drawn and poured out atop our offerings of joy. And in times of our greatest sadness, that love is similarly drawn up from the well, to be poured atop our altar of tears. Only those of us who have drawn from the well in sadness can truly understand what it means to draw from the well in joy. And only those of us who have known such complete joy as to cry in happiness can fully appreciate the profound nature of our loss.
To paraphrase a line from the movie Parenthood (the original with Steve Martin, not the TV series), we must choose whether we want our lives to run like a rollercoaster, with all its exhilarating highs and frightening lows, or like a merry-go-round, never really getting anywhere. Jewish living invites us to ride the rollercoaster–to be exhilarated and frightened, joyful and sorrowful, in the same breath.
May we be comforted in knowing that the feeling in the pit of our stomach is simply a wellspring of love.
In gratitude for your friendship,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Here I am, heading into the month of Heshvan this week, not a holiday in sight after four intense weeks… and there is only one question on my mind: How do we measure the success of celebrating Sukkot at the OJC?
I could try to count the hundreds of congregants and guests who spent time in our sukkah. I might count the number of times we gathered to pray together as a community, marching with lulav and etrog or dancing with the Torahs. I’d count the number of programs and classes in the sukkah that we all enjoyed (eight, by my count!).
I’d certainly count the number of young children and their grown-ups who attended one of Rabbi Hersh’s programs: EKS with spaghetti in the sukkah, grilled cheese supper before Simchat Torah eve and ice cream party on the day. I would add in the number of Religious School children who tried to keep up with Rabbi Scheff’s My Sukkah it has Three Walls routine.
I could absolutely count our success by these numbers.
And I would have it all wrong.
Success in a synagogue community is about holiness, moments of Godliness, and the joyful heights reached through ritual.
I cannot measure such success by counting to eight or one hundred and fifty students or three hundred.
I can only measure holy success with the number one.
I count one congregant who joyfully bentsched (said the blessings for shaking) lulav and etrog at a rehabilitation center. He told his rabbis that October 17 had been his goal for release after surgery because he didn’t want to miss Simchat Torah at the OJC. He could not make it this year, but promised himself and us that he’d be dancing with a Torah next year.
I count one congregant who came to celebrate the holidays with her family each holy day. She is mourning her mother, but rose to the joy of the days. Just as she was kept home from school to attend synagogue when she was a child, so she now keeps her children home from school.
I count one congregant who came into the sukkah after Shabbat evening services to make Kiddush with us and was so entranced by the little ones celebrating that he joined in for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
I count one congregant who danced while holding onto her walker with a four year old who danced by jumping with both feet to the rhythm of the Orangetones at our annual Sukkot dinner.
I count one congregant who read Torah at Simchat Torah for the first time (and second, third and fourth) as everyone in the synagogue received an aliya.
I count one congregant who told me that he had never before celebrated the festival and was so excited by the energy and joy that he was going to plan now to take off these days from his busy medical practice next year to celebrate again.
I can only measure holy success with the number one:
One holy moment experienced by one cherished congregant.
One moment of eternity, one moment of Torah.
One community together celebrating joy as commanded by One God.
It is what we are all about at the Orangetown Jewish Center.
May this new year be one of holy moments for each and every one of us,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Even at the age of 90, Morris is amazing with his hands. And he is so loving and thoughtful. Every year just before Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, he collects willow branches and bundles them together in fives with palm branches. He prepares enough for everybody who will attend the early morning service to complete the ceremony of Hoshanot with seven circles around the sanctuary and the beating of the willow branches (aravot). In contrast to the willow branches of my lulav, which are badly browning and bent by the seventh day of the holiday, these bunches of willow are fresh green.
I recite the words of the ceremony “Kol M’vaser m’vaser v’omer” (“The voice of the prophet resounds and proclaims … good news of peace and deliverance”) three times, and I whip the floor hard with the willow branches. As this season of repentance comes to a close, I hope to shed the willow leaves that represent the deeds I want to leave behind in the year that was. Much like the breadcrumbs that I tossed onto the flowing waters of Tashlich, hoping they would be carried far away from me, I hope these willow leaves will be carried away by the wind and rain. But the batch that Morris prepares for our service sheds nothing as I beat the floor! The expertly wrapped bunch is beautiful and green and lush and cool to the touch. The leaves cling tightly to the long, thin branches. And I smile. I smile for myself and for all the other people who know that they have done the work that needs to be done in preparation for this season of repentance. We can dance with joy over the next days with confidence in God’s acceptance of the imperfections that cling to us, the broken pieces that we carry with us and make a part of our lives, like the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments carried in the ark along with the unbroken set.
I can smile because I have faith that, with good intentions and deeds shaped by the desire to heal the world around me, God will forgive me for that which I don’t accomplish in my quest. I smile because the perfect willows, despite having no fragrance and bearing no fruit, remind me that I can forgive myself for being the perfectly imperfect human being that I am.
Rabbi Craig Scheff