Tag Archives: holiday

Sukkot and its pagan-like customs

I’ve grown accustomed to hearing, year after year, that “Sukkot is the hardest holiday to explain to outsiders”, or the o-so-popular “if a non Jew saw us shaking our Lulavim he’d think we were all pagans”. A popular answer is the standard default of “we do it because Hashem commanded us even if it looks strange”, or better yet, “even more so because it is strange”.

I cannot accept these kinds of answers.
1. I refuse to accept that Torah and Mitzvot are some sort of test, which is the foundation of these types of answers. I don’t observe Mitzvot in order to prove anything to anyone – other nations, other Jews, myself or even God. (For a short piece on why I am observant see here)
2. I completely disagree that there is anything odd or strange in the observances of Sukkot. Only a Judaism that has lost touch with its own origins could say such a thing. Torah is rooted in the life of a nation in its land. The three major holidays revolve around agricultural. They may have a historical element to them as well (Shavu’ot less so as expressed here) but their celebrations are primarily agricultural. Throughout exile, these elements were downplayed or forgotten altogether to the point where we are uncertain how engaging with nature on the most fundamental level could possibly fit with Torah.
And I say – few things make more sense than connecting to Hashem through the embracement of nature. We leave our artificial, man made, houses and lives and surround ourselves with those of Hashem’s. We surround ourselves with nature, we touch nature, we smell nature and it is all a Mitzvah. Doing nothing at all in the Sukkah is a Mitzvah not just because “Hashem said we should do it”, rather because, if you view nature as a place where Hashem dwells and reveals himself than by embracing it you are embracing Him (fulfilling a Mitzvah). Sukkot reveals that, sometimes, you can connect to Hashem even by just being You.
Maybe this can only be done after the purging of Rosh Hashan and Yom Kippur but, non the less, it reveals the possibility of engaging the divine without all the regular “hoopla”, rather by just getting in touch with the most fundamental aspects of existence – (our) nature itself.
Imagine how sincere such a natural/holly שמחה of מצווה such an approach would evoke and produce!
חג שמח!


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Spiritual Surgery

It has always struck me as odd that the opening Tfila of Yom Kippur is Hatarat Nedarim (Annulling vows). Though not fulfilling a vow constitutes a transgression are they such a grave one that they specifically, and not our many other failings, deserve to be dealt with at so dramatically at the onset of Yom Kippur?    
When thinking of what we look like on Yom Kippur, I can’t help but think of a surgery: we dress in white, refrain from eating and drinking, isolate ourselves from the world and experience a mixture of worry and hope in anticipation of positive results.
That is exactly what Yom Kippur is – a spiritual surgery. We remove all material matters and concerns, sterilizing ourselves, allowing exclusive focus on the non-material aspects of our lives. We spend hours inspecting the layers that lay hidden beneath the surface of our identities, identifying the broken and ruptured organs of our personalities, removing negative elements, mending and tending.   
But, unlike a physical surgery, spiritual introspection requires something fundamental in order to succeed – the realization of how we came to need it to begin with. Our sins do not stem primarily from a lack information about our shortcomings, rather because we’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which we are unable to escape.
How often do we (or our children) say: “This is who I am”, “This is what I’ve always done”, “I can’t change” and similar statements?
Vows are just that – patterns that bind us to what we’ve thought, said, done and grown accustomed to, in the past year. Unless we first release ourselves from our destructive patterns, no fasting, praying, crying or singing will help. The surgery will fail, as after Yom Kippur we will find ourselves bound by the same patterns of thought and behavior we had a day earlier.
Hatarat Nedarim is dramatic for a reason. It is a legal and spiritual process after which one must realize they are not enslaved to their past and can say to themselves with full conviction “I must change” and therefore “I can change”, and, using the processes Yom Kippur – fasting, Tfila, Viduy, Slichot, etc… have a successful spiritual surgery resulting in a year of renewal, growth and holiness.

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None of You Actually Celebrated Shavu’ot!

Ten years ago, a reform rabbi friend of mine, bemoaned to me that “Shavu’ot is the forgotten holiday of the Reform Movement”. He explained that: 1. It was only one day.  2. Usually came out in the middle of the week.  3. Had nothing tangible to “capture” people with as other holidays.

I remember thinking how symbolic that the holiday celebrating Torah is missing from a movement that does not believe in its divinity. I’ve felt quite smug about this anecdote over the years and shared it in many settings.
But, since then, I’ve come to realize that Orthodox Judaism may not be much better when it comes to Shavu’ot.
The Orthodox movement doesn’t celebrate Shvu’ot. We celebrate what may very well be a fake holiday, called Chag Matan Torah:
1. The two are not even the same day. Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan. Shavu’ot takes place on the 6th. (In ancient times it sometimes even occurred on the 5th!).
2. We do not count 50 days from The Exodus to Matan Torah. This is a misnomer. Nowhere in the Torah are these two events connected by 50 days. (And in truth, we didn’t even get Torah on the 50th day, rather, on the 51st!)
We count from the first harvest of grain (קציר העומר) seven weeks and then celebrate The Holiday of Harvest.
3. In the 5(!) different places the Torah discusses Shvu’ot we find an exclusively agricultural-religious holiday. It marks the new season of harvest when we:
– Give thanks for the new harvest and new fruits
– Recognize that Divine Providence throughout Jewish History is the reason we are able to live and work The Land of Israel and enjoy its fruits
– Share our plenty with the less fortunate
So how was The Holiday of Harvest “hijacked” and turned into The Holiday of The giving Torah?
1. Once The Temple was destroyed and we – cast into exile, what would a Torah based Shavu’ot look like? it has no observances that are not dependent on living an agricultural life in Israel. The holiday would become irrelevant, possibly even forgotten. It had to be given a new meaning. Considering its proximity to the date of Matan Torah and the exilic emphasis on detached, “spiritual” Torah – the original holiday was replaced with new meaning.
2. But, there is possibly a deeper connection as well. The beauty of Shavu’ot (and Megilat Rut; the reading of the day) is that it represents – more than any other holiday – what a full Torah life looks like. Megilat Rut is what Hashem had in mind when he gave Torah in the first place: The Jewish People living in The Land of Israel, keeping the Mitzvot of the land while also taking care of the less fortunate. All this while remembering where we came from and where we’re heading. In my humble opinion, it is both the most mundane and beautiful story in all of Tanach.
So why the connection?
The Torah does not require we celebrate the day the Torah was given. Remember what our mother’s told us about why we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day? “every day is mother’s day…”. The giving of Torah isn’t a singular event, rather, a continuous, never-ending one. But when the day Torah life is supposed to appear in its entirety is in danger of being erased from Jewish observance, then BECAUSE it was no longer relevant it became the most important day to remember – Hashem gave us Torah.
If we’re not able to “live the life”, let’s at least remember to look at the manual to remember what is missing.
May we merit to observe Shavu’ot according to it’s original, full meaning!

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