It seems odd that our Torah portion this week is entitled Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah” when it immediately announces the death of Sarah and recounts nothing of her life!
As always though, the Torah has a purpose and a lesson. Our job is to “turn it and turn it because all is found within it” (Pirkei Avot 5:6) – if we study enough we will discover both the right questions to ask and find the answers we need.
Perhaps we learn how odd indeed it is that we consider death an absolute ending or the inevitable culmination of a person’s life. Maybe the Torah gently suggests exactly the kind of mourning we practice: When someone we love dies, we recount and recall their life. We make their memory an inspiration for us to live better in what remains of our own lives.
Sen-No Rikyu was a 16th century Japanese sage, the greatest master in the art of hosting guests in the Tea House that ever lived. A disciple once asked him: “What precisely are the things that must be kept in mind at a tea gathering?”
“Make a delicious bowl of tea;
Lay the charcoal so that it heats the water;
Arrange the flowers as they are in the field;
In summer suggest coolness, in winter – warmth;
Do everything ahead of time;
Prepare for rain;
And give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.”
The disciple was dissatisfied: “That much I already know…” he said.
“Then if you can host a tea gathering,” retorted Rikyu, “without deviating from any of the rules I have just stated, I will become your disciple.”
This Shabbat is the start of a new year for our weekly reading of the parashat hashavua – the weekly Torah reading. Among many other things, the weekly parasha is a unique – perhaps Divine – marker of time. Our lives and the events of our week so often seem somehow to connect to, reference as allusion, or otherwise assume some quality or character of an aspect or theme of the weekly Torah portion. The weekly portion often seems to have a mood that marks the season. And the portions dovetail with the Jewish calendar and holidays…If you have only ever perceived the years of your life through the usual January to December calendar of days, weeks, and months, and the same old “Monday thru Friday, weekend” rhythm of experience, you have an opportunity to try something different. If you have never yet spent a year of your life living on the Torah’s paradigm of time, you are in for a treat. I invite you to give it a try…
One way to do so is to read this email each Friday, which follows the parasha and which I hope will give some worthwhile food-for-thought and discussion over Shabbat dinner. These emails usually contain a link to a more detailed consideration of the portion as well.
Another great way to mark time with the parasha is to attend shabbat morning services and hear/discuss the weekly Torah reading with others during the service and over kiddush lunch!
These last couple of days during our Sukkot holiday, the words of our daily evening prayer have echoed in my head: “ufros aleinu Sukkat shlomecha, God, please spread over us the “Sukkah”, the shelter, of your peace.”
The prayer expresses a feeling and a need that I think we all share. There is rarely a day in our everyday lives without the urgent need for a spreading of peace, in which the word “shalom” also suggests “wholeness”, and “completion”. The Sukkah itself is a kind of peaceful oasis: connected to nature, a place simply to sit, to enjoy the company of friends and family, a place of beauty, humility, imperfection and yet gratitude.
· The urgent need for a spreading of “shalom” feels especially relevant this week: Russia’s war in Ukraine is intensifying as Ukraine regains its territory, and we all fear just how potentially world-destructive Putin could become as his losses mount.
· Two Israeli soldiers died this week in terrorist attacks, and the situation feels like it will continue to deteriorate.
· Yesterday the House Select Committee to investigate the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol held yet another hearing and we were all reminded just how fragile the peace of our society really is…
“Ufros aleinu Sukkat shlomecha: God, please spread over us the “Sukkah”, the shelter, of your peace.”
The Soulful Architecture of the Sukkah
“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization.”— Frank Lloyd Wright
I don’t know if Frank Lloyd Wright ever sat for a meal in a sukkah. If I could, I’d invite him along with the ushpizin*, just to see what he’d say about the architecture of the sukkah structure and how it reflects on the soul of Jewish civilization.
Wright would immediately notice that a sukkah is very modest, especially compared to the phenomenon of suburban McMansions and particularly compared to the real mansions on the Neck in Marblehead or out over the “cliff walk” in Newport, RI! The sukkah is no skyscraper either, usually reaching just over our heads. (The absolute maximum is about 30 feet high.) According to Israel Meyer Kagan (the “Hefetz Haim”, a great nineteenth and early 20th century halachic scholar) any sukkah built too high would require strong walls to support it. The makeshift walls of the low-lying sukkah, however, remind us that the sukkah is meant to be an impermanent structure. It should withstand a blustery wind, but not a major storm.
Shabbat shalom for this “Shabbat Shuva”!
One of the most intriguing – and hopeful – aspects of the High Holiday season is the designation of Rosh HaShana as “Hayom Harat Olam”, the day on which the world was called into being, the day on which it was conceived. Given the heavier themes of the holidays to which we are more accustomed, this aspect of the holiday strikes a welcome, positive note: The fact that the universe exists at all is a cause for wonder, for appreciation, for acknowledgment, and for responsibility.
The idea of ‘Hayom Harat Olam’ extends a sense of promise and potential that can strongly motivate us to start the New Year on some positive notes. The Rosh HaShana holiday we celebrated earlier this week, then, was the day that recalls Creation, a day in which there was light instead of an overwhelming darkness, a day to ‘turn over a new leaf’, to make a fresh start, to turn the clock back, to begin again.
Likewise, this positive theme can be detected in the notion of Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This special Sabbath gets its name from the first line of the Haftarah that the Rabbis instituted for the week: “Shuva Yisrael–Return O Israel unto the Lord thy God.” (Hosea 14:2) While each week Shabbat is, among other things, a celebration of the crowning of Creation, Shabbat Shuva directly parallels the primordial first Shabbat in its arrival on the heels of Rosh Hashana, the world’s ‘birthday.’
This is our last Shabbat of the year, just before Rosh haShana.
Our weekly Torah portion, Nitzavim, is a great help in preparing us for the holidays to come.
In fact, the Reform and Reconstructionist High Holiday prayerbooks include a section of this week’s Torah portion as an alternative Torah reading for Yom Kippur Day. Heeding its message is essential for fulfilling our spiritual task at this season. This portion stands as both an invitation to us to participate in these holidays with all our beings, and it underscores the value of inclusivity as a crucially Jewish value.
“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God, which Adonai your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that Adonai may establish you this day as Adonai’s people and be your God, as Adonai promised you and as Adonai swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
This is a very important time of year for Jewish communities everywhere, and for our community as well. Many of you have already renewed your Temple Sinai membership for the new year. Some of you are becoming members again after a hiatus from the synagogue. And we are welcoming a few new members to our community as well.
Welcome and welcome back to you all!
Unlike the expression for greeting someone in English – “welcome” – to which the new arrival responds, “thank you”, the expression in Hebrew is quite different. It implies a sense of mutuality.
You say “bruchim habaim” to the newcomers: “blessed are they that arrive.” The newcomer responds with “bruchim hanimtzaim” which means “blessed be those who are present.”
Thus, a ‘welcome’ becomes a blessing that extends to everyone.
The bruchim habaim greeting is also powerfully optimistic:
Blessed are habaim – whomever or whatever is coming our way.
This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, records another wonderful speech by Moses to the People of Israel. “What it all boils down to is this,” Moses seems to say as he tries – yet again – to explain the covenant and the way of life expected of the nation now living free and about to enter in its new homeland: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to revere [literally “fear”] the Lord your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you today, for your own good.” (Deut. 10: 12-13).
This sounds pretty simple and straightforward. Moreover, “for your own good” is a nice built-in incentive…as is the implication that failure to do so will have results which are not for our own good!
Centuries later, the prophet Micah was inspired to make a similar summary statement in which we hear the echo of Moses’ words: “God has told you, O human, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
This week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, includes some Hebrew words that, if a person in their life utters any Hebrew words at all, these words are probably among them: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad… “Hear O’Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”
I’m curious what these words – so familiar – really mean to us?
From these words which our tradition has taken from the Torah and made into a prayer, a statement of faith – What do we internalize and make part of our being? These words which are to be our last said before going to sleep, when we wake up, and before we die; Words we are told to set upon our hearts, teach with care and loving and patience and intensity to our children; Words we are to say in our home and all along the roads we travel in our lifetime; Words we are supposed to bind onto our hands and keep before our eyes; The words we put in the mezuzot on our doorways and on our gates…What do these words really say to us?
Do we treat these words as a kind of magical incantation? Are these words a kind of catechism that we have to believe? (Don’t you think God was smarter than that – telling Jews what they have to believe?! Good luck with that!)