Saturday, November 5, 2016
Monday, September 9, 2013
Erev RH Sermon: Grace
It all began with a storm. Traveling as a lowly sailor in the North Atlantic in March 1748, John Newton and his fellow crewmates entered an incredibly violent squall. Newton was known his harsh tongue and obscene jests, but was suddenly speechless as he watched a wave crash onto the deck of his ship. The water pushed swiftly over the deck and washed away a fellow crewmate in the exact spot that Newton had been standing only a moment before. Knowing full well that God owed him nothing, Newton prayed. Banding together, Newton and his crew arrived on the shores of Ireland bearing the scars and exhaustion of their journey.
Years later, Newton would reflect on this near-death journey and pen one of the most indelible religious hymns in the history of the Western World:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a retch like me
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
In one simple stanza, Newton would summarize, near perfectly one of the most fundamental theological ideas of the western world, that of grace.
The word Grace may sounds foreign to many of us. To many of our ears it sounds Christian. Since the idea of Grace appears so centrally in numerous places throughout the New Testament, many in the Jewish community assume it’s not native to our tradition as well. However, that notion could not be further from the truth. The concept of Grace, known by the Hebrew word chen, is an integral part of the Jewish faith and is wrapped up in nearly every facet of Jewish life, especially the High Holy Days.
So what is Grace? Grace is act of God loving us unconditionally simply because we exist, not because we have earned God’s love.
With grace, instead of asking for God’s love and attention because we deserve it, we ask for God’s love in spite of the fact that we don’t. We are nothing. We are lost. We are blind, but though we are retches, in spite of our failings, save us anyway.
The notion of grace is woven throughout the tapestry our High Holy Day prayers. It’s possible to go through the prayer book and find page after page of these examples, but I’m only going to provide one tonight.
In perhaps the most famous prayer of our High Holy Days season, the Avinu Malcheinu, we communally ask God to look at us with grace. The prayer begins:
Avinu Malkeinu, Choneinu V'aneinu, ki ein banu ma'asim.
Our father, our king, Choneinu, show us grace and answer us, for we are nothing.
Then as one would expect, the prayer continues, imploring God to love us anyway:
Assei imanu ts'dakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu
Yet in spite of our nothingness, provide us with charity and kindness and save us!
When you think about it, Avinu Malkeinu, the grace contained therein, is counter to much of what most of us think about Judaism because it defies our sense of justice. Especially today, justice is the primary way we think. We want to know our actions matter. We want good to be rewarded and evil to be punished. Unconditional love is a nice idea, but then what’s the point of being good.
The tension inherent between grace and justice and justice is real and it is deeply rooted in Judaism. It appears perhaps the most pronounced in a story we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
Like Newton’s story, this story too begins with a storm. Traveling as a lowly sailor on route to the ancient city of Tarshish, the prophet Jonah is fleeing God. God has told him to travel up to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh and to tell its inhabitants to repent. Ninevah is known as a hotbed of immorality and God wants to give them a chance to escape destruction.
Rather than listening to God, Jonah has fled, finding himself in the middle of the Mediterranean when a storm begins. The storm is his fault. God is punishing him for running away. So Jonah asks his crewmates to throw him overboard. They heed his command, the storm stops and Jonah is immediately swallowed by a fish
Sitting in the belly of the fish, Jonah could have acknowledge his flaws and appealed to God’s grace. Instead, he appeals to God’s justice. He recites a poem extolling all his virtues as proof for why God should save him from the belly of the fish. And as he hoped God hears these arguments and commands the fish to spit out Jonah onto dry land.
NOW Jonah knows that God listens to reason. He’s made a good case for himself and God has heeded. I deserved salvation, he thinks, and I got it! So naturally, when Jonah dusts himself off and waltzes into Ninevah to tell of their destruction he expects their imminent demise. There is simply no way, he thinks, that these inhabitants can come up with a compelling argument for why they should be forgiven when their past is littered with so much immorality.
Yet, when Jonah confronts them, they listen to him. But rather than imploring God with argument after argument for their salvation, they simply repent, putting on ashes and sackcloth and fasting. Everyone is involved from their king to their livestock. God sees their actions and turns and relents. God does not bring on the destruction he had threatened.
When Jonah learns of God’s decision he becomes very angry. For Jonah the world needs to follow certain rules. Not everyone deserves forgiveness. He tells God, “I ran away to Tarshish because I heard a rumor you are el chanun v’rachum, a God of grace and compassion. I’d rather die than watch an underserving people like Nineveh be saved.”
What Jonah wants is a good answer to his question, a simple explanation for why God chose to save Nineveh. But grace does not work that way. Instead the story ends with a question, the only book in the Bible to do so: “Why shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh, a great city with more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left hand, and so many cattle as well!”
This debate, between Jonah’s conception of Justice and God’s understanding of Grace is still alive today. Clearly, there are times in our lives that we need to hold fast to an understanding of reward and punishment. Criminals must be tried. Our children must be disciplined. Hard workers deserve raises, lazy ones should be fired. Yet, all too often, perhaps because it makes the most sense to us rationally, we fail to consider the roll of grace in the world and how we can be a part of it.
Our ancient ancestors implored us to “walk in God’s ways,” to imitate God’s action and to make them our own. If that is true, how can the High Holy Days, a season rich with God’s grace, inspire us to act, not just with justice, but with more chen, more grace in our lives? In truth, many of us already do.
This year, I’ve watched as many of my closest friends became parents for the first time. For those who have reached this stage of life, it’s a very strange feeling. My friends, many of whom I had not seen as parental in the least become fountains of altruism as they held their baby in their arms. There’s an old Yiddish proverb that says “about one’s children, every parent is blind.” This saying holds true for many of them. Caring for children is difficult by any standard of measure. A newborn is less a person than an eating, sleeping, and pooping machine. Yet, in spite of the hard work and the lack of independence, in spite of the fact that one’s child has done nothing to earn their affection, new parents love their children. Parenting a baby is a disciple steeped in grace.
Grace however, does not end when we put away the cradle. This year has also been a year of tremendous public altruism. I’ve never been more proud of our community than I was after Hurricane Sandy. In the aftermath of the storm, our community came together. We gathered supplies, made sandwiches and canvassed houses. We put out an emergency call for 600 eggs and received 6,000. People brought with them open spirits and tenacity of heart, and with a combination of love and passion cared for strangers living only a few miles away.
The Torah commands us, “v’ahavtah et hager” (Dt. 10:19), to love the stranger. If taken seriously, this is an incredibly difficult love to achieve. It’s easy to love our friends; we know so much about them. Yet, to love a stranger means to love them before we know their virtues. Those who walked into darkened buildings, who brought flashlights to the elderly and food to the hungry performed acts of love to those who did nothing to earn their love. Those effected did nothing to deserve their care, but in spite of that many of you, nonetheless acted with compassion. Caring for the stranger, caring for these strangers in the storms aftermath was the truest embodiment of grace one can perform.
But one doesn’t need have children or respond to a crisis to carry himself with grace. This is the season for it. The High Holy Day season is the season for forgiveness. As a Rabbi, I’ve watched too many people hold onto anger. We have been hurt, so we hold hot coals in our hands waiting to throw them at another person, all the meantime burning our palms in the process. At times resentment and anger are often warranted. Brothers spit vitriol. Spouses undercut one another. Children act vindictively to their parent. Friends become peddlers in one another’s gossip. Often we feel that those who hurt us the most do not deserve our love and forgiveness. We feel just in holding on to our pain. Yet, in spite of this fact, many forgive. Every act of forgiveness, when we have evidence to do otherwise is an act of grace.
Gracious forgiveness is an old phenomenon beginning with the story of Jacob and Esau. The scene is set 3500 years ago. Jacob has incited his brother’s wrath after stealing his birthright and blessing. To ensure his survival, his parents send him away to Haran to find a wife. Flash forward. It’s nearly a generation later and the two are meeting for the first time. During this encounter, one filled with tears and deep embracing, Jacob asks his brother for grace. You have no reason to forgive me for all the pain I’ve caused you in the past, he intimates, it would be just to punish me, but in spite of that if I have found grace in your eyes, accept my forgiveness anyways. Esau does. Then Jacob says something that has reverberated through the generations:
God has dwelt graciously with me, giving me a family and riches when I did not deserve them. And seeing you act with grace, forgiving me when you could have done otherwise, is like seeing the face of God.
Over our lives, we are perpetually given the opportunity to carry ourselves with the same grace, the same spirit of chen that is alive in our ancient ancestors’ conception of God. And like Esau, every time we do this, we become a little more like God, bringing the divine attribute of grace into the public realm. For this reason, as the song suggests, grace is truly amazing. It defies our expectations. We could have behaved otherwise. In a world of justice, living with grace embraces a world of love. In a society of proof, living with grace challenges us to live lives of acceptance. When others ask why, grace challenges us to ask why not?
My challenge for you is to let this High Holy Day season be a season of grace. Forgive faster. Love deeper. Appeal to God to love you in spite of your flaws. Then turn around and do the same to those you meet. Much of the world functions with a theology justice. Like Jonah they seek reasons for our action. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always right for you. See the world, see your neighbors, see your family, with all their flaws, baggage, and defaults, and in spite of these things…love them anyway.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
This year, I stood alongside my wife Julia Katz, as the two of us were ordained. I became a Rabbi and she a Cantor. Notability, we couldn’t have had two different paths to ordination. I was always going to be a Rabbi. I loved religious school, lived for Jewish Camp, and craved the weekends, when I would escape to Jewish youth group events and even as a kid, I Bar Mitzvahed my sister’s dolls.
Julia grew up with a very different story. Coming from an interfaith household, Julia was exposed to certain Jewish practices. However, outside of Hannukah and Passover, Julia’s family did little to celebrate or observe anything Jewish. Raised to become a spiritual person, Julia’s Jewish knowledge was patchy at best. There’s a wonderful family video of a young Julia standing up at the holiday table and promptly telling the Hanukah story…completely wrong!
As she grew, music would become her religion and spiritual outlet. She went to a special arts High School then to New England Conservatory. Graduating from college, Julia was a seeker, trying to find where she could connect music to her broader goals and values. Then one Yom Kippur, a family friend offered to take Julia to services. Hearing a female cantor for the first time in her life, Julia was smitten.
A few weeks later she walked into the Cantor’s office in her locale Boston Synagogue and announced that she wanted to become a Cantor. Then she asked the obvious question, “Can you tell me what a Cantor is?”
Julia quickly learned that becoming a clergy member is much more than having a good voice. To become a cantor, she would first need to learn to become Jewish. With tenacity of spirit and grit, Julia enrolled in Hebrew class, introduction to Judaism, and began singing with local Jewish choir.
However as she pursued her dream, she ran up against obstacles. Many questioned her dedication to Judaism. They didn’t understand how someone who barely did anything Jewish as a child would want to become a Cantor. Because she came from an interfaith household, many in her own community told her that she needed a formal conversion before they would see her as an equal. While I had a pleasant interview at the Hebrew Union College, talking about my views about God and the Jewish people, the committee grilled Julia for almost an hour, making her prove time and again her resolve for her dreams.
People’s comments about her Jewish identity hurt Julia. They were painful precisely because they cut to the core of who she was and who she wanted to be. Julia was excited that she has found a meaningful career, but by choosing to be on this path, she made herself vulnerable. True she opened herself up to new experiences, values, and outlooks but in opening herself up she also left herself exposed to the harsh stings of others comment.
Julia is fine now. She made it past this rocky patch and is a cantor at Central Synagogue, a huge Manhattan synoaguge and is singing Kol Nidre at Avrey Fisher Hall as we speak. However, as the High Holy Days arrived his year, I found myself fixated on her story because of what it teaches about the tension inherent in her vulnerability.
On the one hand, pursuing her dream put her insecurities at the forefront and left her incredibly vulnerable to other’s criticisms. In truth, she felt more pain that she would have, had she not pursued this dream. This is not unique. Leaving oneself vulnerable is frightening because it exposes our weaknesses. We fear sharing our wishes because we worry that others will tell us they are untenable. We silence our dreams because if we fail to achieve them, our failure reflects badly on our character. We are reluctant to learn a new skill because in the interim it means we may be bad at it. Then instead of saying that we are bad at the guitar or Spanish or basketball, we worry that our mistakes, which are a natural part of learning, will just mean that we are bad. We spin stories in our heads: if I can’t learn to strum the guitar does this means I’m incapable of learning things, and if I can’t learn new things does this mean I’m not smart anymore? There is little question that the safest route we can take is to avoid anything that may leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Yet, making herself vulnerable left Julia open to fulfill her dreams. For her, it was worth the struggle. And she’s not alone:
The Torah teaches that 3,500 years ago, when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, God appeared in a burning bush to Moses and charged him with freeing the Israelites. Yet, no sooner does God finish telling Moses his task than Moses replies, “Mi Ani…who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
As God and Moses talk more, it becomes clear why Moses is reluctant to go. He fears failure. He worries that when the time comes to perform miracles he will be unable to do them. He is frightened of his weaknesses. He knows he lacks all the answers. He has a speech impediment that he fears will get in his way of advocating for the Israelites.
In worrying about being exposed as the powerless, inexperienced, inarticulate, prophetic novice that he sees in the mirror, Moses almost passes up the opportunity to be the Jewish people’s greatest leader and teacher. Moses knows that he will certainly struggle and fail during his mission to Egypt and the pain from this is almost too great to bear.
What Moses doesn’t realize when he is about to reject God’s offer is the flip side. By exposing himself to the potential for pain, he will get the chance later to speak with God, panim el panim, face to face. He will teach generations of his people to love God and one another. Vulnerability opens the door for the fulfillment of our spiritual and emotional ideals even if sometimes it is accompanied by feelings of doubt. fear, and shame.
In her recent book, “Daring Greatly” Dr. Brene Brown discovered something odd while researching the subject of vulnerability. She asked her patients for a list of the things that made them feel the most vulnerable. At first they answered in the obvious ways, citing things like sickness, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, and divorce. But when pushed harder, this is what she found:
Standing over a sleeping child
Loving my job
Spending time with my parents
Going into remission
Falling in love
It took a good year of therapy for Dr. Brown to embrace this paradigm shift in thinking. True, being vulnerable means risking failure, but it is also directly tied to happiness.
Each item expressed brings with it a great deal of baggage and fear. The more we love someone, the more that is on the line if that relationship were to fail. The more we let someone in to who we really are, the more fodder they have access to if they were to try to hurt us. The more a parent loves a child, the harder it will be when that child seeks independence. If an addict gives up his drug habit, it means he will be healthier and happier but it also means he may have to face the inner demons he was hiding by using.
As I learned more, I found myself agreeing about the tie between vulnerability and happiness, especially as it pertains to getting promoted. When I began officially as a Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim a few months ago, I was incredibly scared. I had been the Rabbinic intern for three years and I knew how to do my job. Getting the title of Rabbi meant that I could expect a higher level of scrutiny to my actions. In truth, this fear was my own invention.
This summer, I performed the first four funerals of my rabbinic career, but I almost postponed them all by nearly refusing to perform my first one, which by the way was seven days into the job. I was so worried that I wouldn’t live up to the perfect image of the Rabbi that I had created for myself that I almost said no. I feared little things like forgetting the words to the prayers and bigger things like saying the wrong name of the deceased or God forbid, falling into the grave. I like many others, could only picture two scenarios: I would either need to be perfect or I would be disastrous.
During that funeral, I absolutely made mistakes. I got to the subway only to realize I had forgotten my eulogy on my kitchen table. I misjudged how long the funeral and burial would take and had to catch a ride home to Brooklyn in the hearse. However, these mistakes did not matter. That funeral, and the other three, would become the most meaningful part of my summer. Through the vulnerability created by my becoming a Rabbi, I would enter people’s lives in ways I would never imagine and be inspired more than I knew possible.
In a way, our ancient ancestors knew the tie between vulnerability and positive emotions like joy, creativity, fulfillment, and love. There is an ancient Talmudic teaching that the only way to truly become a scholar of Torah is to stumble over the words (Talmud Bavli Gittin 43a). True we want to be right, but our ancestors knew that the embarrassment felt by not knowing something was the first step to knowledge. If we failed to make mistakes in the classroom we would never improve our skills.
The Rabbis also relate vulnerability to leadership. They ask the question: why is it that King Saul, ancient Israel’s first king, did not warrant his children to be king after him. Why instead does David and his line become the kings of Israel? Their answer is telling. Saul sinned by trying all the time to be to perfect and wasn’t genuine. He never let himself be vulnerable and therefore wasn’t an open enough leader. A real leader, our tradition teaches, must wear his flaws like a coat (Yoma 22b). Only then would he understand those he leads and they him.
Perhaps the most famous acknowledgment about the power of vulnerability appears in the prayer Hineini, which is recited during Musaf services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Called affectionately the “Hazzan’s prayer” Cantor’s around the country, like Julia, are called upon to stand publically before their Congregation and express their fears in song. The liturgical poem expresses the fear they may feel in being a prayer leader, the paradox in asking for forgiveness when they themselves are imperfect. They even have to acknowledge, on Yom Kippur of all days, that they could be better looking and have better voices. Yet, the prayer continues, in spite of these and other imperfections. God should accept their prayers. In a way, reciting this prayer and publically acknowledging their vulnerability makes them more human, more humble, and gives them the honor of leading a community in prayer. And it also makes them more open to God.
This is because vulnerability isn’t just the seat of joy and creativity but also of spirituality. Two generations ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came up with the idea of radical amazement, the feeling one gets when he stands in awe of the natural world. Standing before a mountain or a vast expanse of water is powerful, precisely because it makes us feel so small and human. In feeling this awe, Heschel teaches, we feel God. Those who reject weakness, who refuse to feel small, may miss significant experiences with the divine.
Radical amazement is tied to vulnerability in another way: both are surprising. We don’t always know how we will feel. Julia had no idea when she started her journey to the cantorate that it would end up being painful. I had no idea when I decided to stay at CBE that I would be as frightened of my first funeral. Not even Moses knew how hard advocating for the people would be. The important thing is not that you know how you will feel in a given situation but that you don’t run from those feelings.
Since so much good is tied to vulnerability, my challenge for you this year is to embrace it. Be open. Take risks with your heart. Embrace mistakes. Let yourself love deeper. Laugh harder. If you do, you’ll be more present, more available, and more engaged with the people around you, with yourself, and with God. Then you might live out the ideal of our ancient author of the Hineini prayer:
Kol tzarut v’ra’ut, hafach na lanu…k’sason u’lisimcha. L’chayim u’lishalom.
That through our fears and affliction we find joy, life, and peace;
Ha’emet v’hashalom e’havu.
May truth and peace be precious to us
B’A’A Shomei Tefilah
Blessed are you God who hears our prayers.
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Does someone have control over what happens to their money when they donate to their shul? There is an analogy in today's daf that speaks to this question. The answer is maybe...
Here it is. There are two ways one can donate to the ancient temple. On the one hans they can make a bedek habayit. This is a donation fore the upkeep of the temple. The other is called kodshei hamizbeach which means a donation that will be used for a sacrifice to God. According to the Mishnah if someone donates something but does not say to which category he wants his sacrifice to go it becomes bedek habayit and can be used to fix the leaky roof.
I wonder if this is a useful paradigm for temple fundraising today. A plain gift to a temple can be used for anything. But if one expresses a programmatic initiative or specific service one should honor this request (provided it fits the vision for the community). This idea is not novel. Plenty of communities have this policy. However it is interesting that one can find a precursor for it in our tradition.
Please excuse typos. I wrote this ont iPhone.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
One reason I love Judaism is that it is mainly a religion of deed. That's why I was surprised today when I came across a teaching that one can be punished for his thoughts - if that thought was about idol worship.
The teaching come in the context of an incident where a child sends away a mother bird before fetching eggs for his father. Based on the Torah, one is promised a long life if he does either of two commandments (sending away a mother bird before taking their young and honoring one's parents). However, on his way down the child falls to his death, and the text must struggle with the question of theodicy: how can such a bad thing happen to such a meritorious boy?
In debating what went wrong the Talmud suggests that he was punished for his sinful thoughts. However that is quickly dismissed because "The holy one does not consider a sinful thought to be in the realm of deeds." Therefore the child would not be punished on account of this.
However, the text continues, if he was thinking about idol worship that warrants punishment. So what's different about idol worship?
The Meiri has an interesting answer: Idol worship at it's core is a belief in one's heart.
When I pray to God I do a lot. I read words. I bow. I stand. However, my real prayer comes from my intention. That's different than say eating pork because I can think about the other white meat till the cows come home but until I eat it I haven't done anything wrong. Thinking about Baal or any other gods, is in a way akin to actually worshipping them.
So what does this text teach us? There is something special about prayer that nothing else has and it's the fact that we can do it even while others are watching. Prayer is inner and personal. Prayer is sui generis which makes it all the more powerful.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
The News of Gilad Shalit's release after 5 years of captivity prompted me to change my Sukkot sermon last minute. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.
בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת.
You shall sit in sukkot for seven days, all the citizenry of Israel shall sit in sukkot.
And so we do. We sit in these sukkot, the next verse tells us, so that the generations may know that God made the children of Israel dwell in booths, when God brought them out of the land of Egypt. Sukkot and the sukkah remind us of the wilderness, of the wandering. The sukkah itself symbolizes impermanence. The rules regulating its size and construction, the materials which can be used, even the hole-y roof, all these requirements signify this dwelling’s temporary nature. Even our visitors, the famous ushpizin only come in for a day. They join us for a part of the holiday, and then make their exit. The festival of Sukkot and its booths suggest the transient nature of life, the ebb and flow. To every thing, there is a season.
Why live in these temporary dwellings? Yes, the verse says that we are to remember the exodus from Egypt, but isn’t every other holiday also a time to recall the exodus from Egypt? After all, Shabbat asks us to remember the exodus; it’s right there in the Kiddush! Whereas in other chapters of the Torah, different festivals and Shabbat are tied to the exodus, in our chapter of Leviticus, there is only one mention of the exodus, and that is connected to Sukkot. Only Sukkot, so that future generations will know that God made us dwell in booths when we left Egypt. Why the special significance here? Yes, we lived in booths, but it is also more than that. It all comes back to impermanence, but not of the dwellings, per se, rather of the experience.
For it is also the wilderness which is temporary. Isolation and separation from our land is temporary. The hard days and nights, the tough work of getting to know God and understanding God’s power: that won’t last forever. One day, we will cross the Jordan. One day, there will be one God whose name is one. So, we remind ourselves of that, every year for a week. We come together to build sukkot and celebrate with the Lulav and Etrog. Each year, we string the autumnal colored decorations, repurposing Halloween and Thanksgiving knick-knacks for our temporary dwelling to remind us of the days when we were in the wilderness. We bring with us a recollection of our redemptive journey to freedom and hope for our ultimate redemption. All thanks to the little, temporary structure.
Sukkot asks that we bring the wilderness with us, but sometimes we may choose to highlight the wilderness on our own. How interesting, then, that this year, we are all paying attention to temporary dwellings in a new way. We are called to take note of the wilderness of those isolated and separated. Summoned to see those working hard and not getting ahead. This summer, thousands of Israelis moved to tents in every major city and many not-so-major ones. They were young people looking to establish themselves in their land, though all they found was wilderness. They found rising costs of food, no mannah to gather. They found inaccessible housing, they couldn’t even afford an apartment the size of a sukkah. And so, they built cities of temporary dwellings. All to call attention to their wilderness. They came together in their tents and huts to highlight the wilderness of their present, not to remember the wilderness of their past and hoping for a brighter future.
In this country as well, the Occupy Wall Street movement shines a light on those mired in a wilderness. The wilderness of low wages and high prices for food, fuel and health care. The wilderness of a tax code considered overly beneficial to corporations and the wealthiest. The wilderness of disenfranchisement from representative government, feeling like they don’t have a voice, because they can’t afford a lobbyist. These protestors, whether we agree with them or not, even in part, call to mind a perceived wilderness in this nation through their tents. They are attempting to focus our attention toward the majority who had until now not spoken up, who had not, until recently, reached its breaking point. They call to mind those who are the most vulnerable when left out in the elements. And they do it all from their tents in the financial district, promising not to go home until something changes.
And sometimes, things do change. A little over a year ago, one family set up their own temporary dwelling, outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, on Azza Street. This tent, modest in stature, recalled another wilderness. This time, the wilderness of one. One soldier, who as of today has been in captivity 1936 days. The Shalit family set up this tent saying that until their son was brought home, they would not go home. While their son was in the wilderness, they would brave it with him, and remind people that there was still someone out in the desert. This year, the festival of Sukkot will be remembered not only because of the Shalit family’s temporary dwelling, but because of the redemption that followed. It will be remembered as the time when Gilad Shalit was freed from his captivity and brought forth to freedom. When he crossed back into his homeland. He is due to be transferred to Egypt and then to Israel early next week.
And it is Gilad Shalit’s freedom that ultimately reminds us of the joy that we are meant to feel on Sukkot. For even though the dwellings are temporary, reminding us of the difficulties of the wilderness, the mere fact that we build them means that we have prevailed. We were rescued from Egypt. We have made it through the wilderness in the past, we will do it again.
Whether reminding us of the difficulties in our past, revealing the wildernesses of our present, or serving as a symbol of making it through the desert, our modest huts resonate in impressive ways. The schach on the roof will fade from the green of freshly cut bows to a pale brown. The paper garlands will fade in the sun and be ravaged by the wind and the rain. The gourds will wither. Yet each year we build again. Each year we decorate again. Each year we invite our guests in. We know that the wilderness is only temporary.
May we all recognize the wildernesses these sukkot represent, both past and present. May we rejoice that freedom has been achieved and another of the citizenry of Israel can look back on wilderness rather than forward to more days in the desert. And, with these sukkot all around us as we gather in this holy community, may we all pray for the Sukkat Shalom, the Sukkah of peace to prevail over us, over all of Israel and over all of humanity.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.