Thursday Thought

Tzedakah: To Whom Should You Give?

Posted on December 11, 2019

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

I bet you too have recently received lots of phone calls, emails, and letters recently from charities asking for your money. Fine charities. Worthy charities. But so many charities. The flood began recently with Giving Tuesday and will continue through the end of the year. This raises an important question: to whom should we give?  

I explored the question with my seventh graders in my New Jersey religious school by conducting an experiment. I identified a few charities that focused on different needs, each with a Jewish and non-Jewish counterpart. For example, I would introduce the International Red Cross and Magen David Adom (The “Red Cross” in Israel). Then I asked the students to write “checks” totaling $100. If a student felt each charity is equally important, then they would all get $16. But if a student felt one is superior, that charity alone might receive almost $100. It was up to the kids.

The following week I shared the totals with them to see how they allocated their dollars, and we discussed. I asked them if they think it’s more important to share with Jewish causes or general causes, and most said general causes. They said we Jews are citizens of the world and have a responsibility to care for the world at large. And they were not wrong, I said (and believe). I reminded them that the Torah says that all people are created in G-d’s image. This is said about Adam and Eve, who were not Jewish but simply human beings.  

There’s also the line from the Talmud, Gittin 61A: “We sustain non-Jewish poor with Jewish poor … for the sake of peace.” Giving to local and global causes is itself a Jewish value. 

The students sometimes hesitated to make a case to give to Jewish causes. Perhaps because it feels tribal, which has a negative connotation.  But the funny thing is how they voted with their “dollars”: about 45% of their “charity” went to Jewish causes. After realizing this they might have said that if we Jews don’t care for our own, who will? They were not wrong, I said again. And believe.  

The Talmud in Bava Metzia 71A says, 

“If you lend money to a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich, the poor takes precedence; your poor and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another city, the poor of your city have priority.” 

The Talmud teaches that we have to first care for our own. There’s nothing at all provincial about caring for family first; the Jewish world is our extended family.

In the end, I think we have a Jewish responsibility to give to both Jewish and general causes in about a 50/50 distribution. Fortunately, we can split up our dollars. It’s not all or nothing.  

Giving to both Jewish and general causes is how I put these teachings together. We should always be aware of our Jewish backgrounds and responsibilities toward our own community while not being so narrow-minded that we neglect the world around us. That sounds simple to do, but it’s not at all. 

Best of luck navigating that path in your own giving this year and beyond. The exciting thing is that you get to choose what percentage of your dollars to allocate to the causes that matter to you.

For a practical guide to giving to charity, consider this article from Money Magazine I found helpful: 

On a related charity topic, check out my sermon about how to best assist beggars on the street:

Shabbat Shalom.

Encountering the Divine

Posted on December 4, 2019

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

The Bible is full of stories of our ancestors encountering God – sometimes in conversation, and sometimes “face to face”; sometimes through grand acts such as revelation or pillars of fire, and sometimes in dreams; and sometimes in prophecy. We learn these stories as children in school and quickly come to accept the magic of them. After all, how are we to understand the nature of the Divine if we cannot understand God in human terms, particularly from a young age? So we have in our tradition a God who speaks, and through that speech the world is created. Through that speech, waters pour from the heavens, flooding and destroying that very creation. Through that speech people are put to the ultimate tests. Through that speech we receive rules, laws, and guidelines to help us live holy lives.

This week in Parashat Vayeitzei we read of a very famous encounter with God. It is so incredible, in fact, that artists from William Blake to Marc Chagall, and songwriters from Huey Lewis and Pete Seeger to Chumbawumba and Rush, have created art and music related to this story, which is comprised of all of ten verses (Gen. 28:10-19). There are so many midrashim and commentaries on this story, but I’d like to highlight something which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings to our attention in his volume entitled Covenant and Conversation. It is also something which my childhood rabbi, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spoke about often as he taught us about the importance of interaction with God and with each other.

Rabbi Sacks writes the following:

This week’s parsha relates a powerful, primal vision of prayer: Jacob, alone and far from home, lies down for the night, with only stones for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending. This is the initial encounter with the “house of God” that would one day become the synagogue, the first dream of a “gate of heaven” that would allow access to a God that stands above, letting us know finally that “God is truly in this place.”

There is, though, one nuance in the text that is lost in translation, and it took the Hassidic masters to remind us of it. Hebrew verbs carry with them, in their declensions, an indication of their subject. Thus the word yadati means “I knew,” and lo yadati, “I did not know.” When Jacob wakes from his sleep, however, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place ve’anokhi lo yadati.” Anokhi means “I,” which in this sentence is superfluous. To translate it literally we would have to say, “And I, I knew it not.” Why the double “I”?

To this, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (Panim Yafot) gave a magnificent answer. How, he asks, do we come to know that “God is in this place”? “By ve’anokhi lo yadati – not knowing the I.” We know God when we forget the self. We sense the “Thou” of the Divine Presence when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity. Only when we stop thinking about ourselves do we become truly open to the world and the Creator.

So the question for us is, how does this apply to our lives today? God no longer makes grand appearances, nor does God show God’s self, speaking directly with us. We no longer live in a nascent Israelite society which required divine intervention in order to function, nor do we live in a world of prophecy. This reality poses a great challenge, but also offers us a fantastic opportunity.

The challenge is in trying to make sense of the world. How could the same God who split the sea and destroyed creation for its evil allow such atrocities to happen in the world as the Shoah, the genocide in Darfur, or even simply allow innocent children to starve to death around the world? How can that be?! How can God who was willing to save Sodom and Gomorrah for but ten righteous people, and who challenged Jonah to help the Ninevites to repent so God wouldn’t have to ultimately destroy that city, allow regimes of terror and dictatorship thrive in the world? It doesn’t make sense. But then, putting it all on God in Heaven isn’t terribly fair, is it? The Torah teaches us that “…it is not in Heaven…” (Deut. 30:12). The very same verse which the Rabbis of the Talmud used to take ownership of interpreting the Torah is one of the keys to help us understand our opportunity and obligation in facing this great challenge.

The opportunity is a fantastic one. It takes work to really take advantage of it, some of which goes against the grain of our modern society, but then again that is the beauty of a religion which challenges us to think beyond the confines of societal norms. As Rabbi Sacks notes above from Rabbi Horowitz’s commentary on the Jacob’s ladder story, Jacob was able to encounter God because he was able to stop thinking about just himself, thus being fully open to the world around him in its entirety. We live in a society that teaches us to fend for ourselves. We live in a time in which virtually anything can be had instantly—with the tap of a finger we can order any product on Amazon and have it delivered the very same day, or find a variety of answers to any question in the universe without having to open books or speak with other people to research. It’s incredible! And yet at the same time, these most wondrous conveniences which allow us to get so much done in smaller amounts of time, also train us to be more self-centered than perhaps any generation before us. We walk around looking at our screens, or drive through town engrossed in a conversation over Bluetooth, and thus miss out on what is truly beautiful and important in this world. We literally miss out on the opportunity to interact with the divine.

In the first creation narrative, we are taught that God created people in the Divine image. God gave each living creature a soul. That is a radical concept, particularly today. The great philosopher Martin Buber gives us an idea of how to live with this concept in what is perhaps his most famous work, I and Thou. He teaches that there are two main types of relationship: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. An “I-It” relationship is when we interact with a person or object which is separate from ourselves…we merely experience it, and then we move on to the next interaction. I would venture to guess that this is the experience many of us have most often as we go through our day – ordering food at a restaurant, speaking with the bank teller, or even with our neighbors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of relationship, but it doesn’t do anything to truly enrich our lives.

“I-Thou” is Buber’s ideal, and this is, I believe, how we come closer to encountering God. “I-Thou” is an interaction or relationship in which the other (or the “Thou”) is not separated by discrete bounds from the “I”. In other words, we allow ourselves to get deep into the interaction. There is nothing utilitarian about the relationship. We recognize the unique value in the other. If we are to define this in Jewish religious terms, we recognize the nitzotz—the sacred Divine spark which resides in every living thing since the time of creation—in the other. In other words, if I know that I am created in the Divine image and I recognize that the salesperson in Nordstrom is also created in that very image, my interaction with that person changes greatly. If I know that is the case, I will stop thinking just about me and recognize that the interaction goes two ways. It is not merely about the salesperson finding the pair of shoes I want in my size in the stockroom; rather it is an opportunity to connect with another person created in the Godly image. And in that interaction, I just might get a little closer to experiencing God.

God doesn’t appear in clouds or in pillars of fire anymore. God doesn’t split seas or stop wars. “It’s not in heaven” anymore. It is here, it is real, and it is ours. When we see the humanity in the other, we encounter God. When we recognize our sacred and moral obligation to stand up in the face of atrocity because another person is suffering, and we step back from our particular needs in order to address that, we encounter God. When we are children and learn the stories of the Torah, it may seem to us that God only appears to specific people at specific moments. But the truth is, we all have the opportunity to encounter the Divine on a very regular basis, just as Jacob did that fateful night in his dream…we just have to seize the opportunity.

Vote MERCAZ USA in January World Zionist Congress Elections

Posted on November 27, 2019

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

One thing that unites our Beth El community is our affiliation with the Conservative Movement. For the sake of our Jewish values and our movement, we should all vote for MERCAZ USA in the upcoming elections for the World Zionist Congress. 

Yes, this is the same body that Theodor Herzl convened in 1897. Since Israel was established, this Congress holds elections about every five years. This organization plays a real role in Israeli life and Diaspora Jews have a real say in who gets elected. In short, the more votes we bring, the more funding in Israel will align with our values and causes. 

MERCAZ USA is the official slate of the Conservative Movement in the US. Our own Rabbi Kurtz served as past president of MERCAZ USA, and our own congregants Alan Silberman and Sandy Starkman are running for election. Let’s help them win seats!

The group’s mission is to support religious pluralism in Israel and solidify the connection between the Diaspora and Israel. They seek to bolster Conservative/Masorti life in Israel, which needs our support.

Elections will run from January 21 – March 11 2020. I share this with you now in order to put it on your radar. Please check out the site below to pledge to vote, which means MERCAZ USA will send you a reminder when voting begins. It also contains more detailed information about all the above.

Jewish life is so robust at Beth El. Let’s do our part by ensuring that all Israelis have similar opportunities to practice Judaism in a way that is egalitarian, open, and inclusive. MERCAZ USA advocates for exactly that.

Thanksgiving Every Day

Posted on November 19, 2019

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

It’s hard to believe Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Although most of us think of Thanksgiving as the day for watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (a family tradition since I was little girl), football on TV, and a big family feast of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, the very name suggests that the holiday is so much more than a day off (and day before the shopping spree also known as “Black Friday”).

This very American holiday, in many ways, emulates the fall festival of Sukkot, celebrated last month. Some scholars have attributed the beginnings of Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims’ understanding of the Jewish autumn festival of Sukkot: a time for giving thanks to God for the bounty of the harvest.

As Jews, we observe Thanksgiving every day during our daily worship services: Ma’ariv, Shacharit and Mincha. Our liturgy articulates directs us toward gratitude in every service, in numerous prayers.

We give thanks for the extraordinary—the big miracles—in the “Al Hanissim” (for the miracles of Chanukah, Purim, and the State of Israel) section of the Amidah called the “Hoda’ah” (literally, thanksgiving). We start the Hoda’ah with the words “Modim anachnu Lach” (We give thanks to you) and go on to thank God for not only the big miracles, but the daily “small” miracles that surround our lives.

The Birchot Hashachar (morning blessings)—the series of blessings traditionally recited upon waking each morning, and which begin our daily Shacharit service express gratitude to God for the often easily overlooked things: clothing, food, eyesight, freedom, the basic act of awakening less weary than we were when we fell to sleep, and even the simple functioning of our internal organs. These are only a few of the opportunities we have in our worship to offer thanksgiving and make thanks-giving a daily, as well as, a once-a-year event.

There is so much for which I am grateful as we come to our national day of thanks, not the least of which is becoming a full-time part of the North Suburban Beth El family. There are so many in the congregation (staff and congregants) I would like to thank, it would be impossible to name them all. Just know you have my endless gratitude for making this time of transition as easy as possible and welcoming Phil and I into the NSS Beth El community.

In advance, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

Seeing Criticism as Critical: The Art of Rebuke in Judaism

Posted on November 14, 2019

By Rabbi Michael Schwab

“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account” (Leviticus 19:17). 

Very few of us like being criticized.  It often hurts to know that we didn’t do everything 100% correctly and that we were not always at our best.

However, without critical feedback, how can we improve?  Without someone pointing out our mistakes or sharing why our perspective is flawed, how will we make better choices in the future? 

Generally, in our society today we have become incredibly sensitive to criticism and most people like to avoid giving it or getting it.  According to Judaism, this mindset is short-sighted.  As the Sages lamented way back at the beginning of the millennium, “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, ‘I swear that there is none in our generation who is able to accept rebuke! If one says, “Take the splinter out of your teeth,” the other retorts, “Take the beam out of your eyes!”’” In other words, even then the Sages were discouraged that when one gave critical feedback to another, instead of taking it in and using it constructively, the other became defensive and counter-attacked the one who delivered the criticism. 

The truth is that we need to be able to hear criticism about our actions and choices in order to keep away from mistakes as well as to heal relationships we might not have realized we tarnished by our behavior.  As the midrash says, “Rabbi Jose said, ‘A love without reproof is no love.’ Resh Lakish said, ‘Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.’”

Yet, how we deliver critical feedback is just as important.  There is way to rebuke and a way not to rebuke.  As the Rambam codified in his Mishneh Torah law code, “He who rebukes another . . . should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good.” 

In other words, criticism should be leveled only when it is constructive, done for the benefit of the person or the people for whom they are responsible and should not embarrass the person. 

According to Judaism, being a fellow community member means that we need to be able to deliver criticism and receive it.  And when doing so, we need to uphold the highest level of menschlekite possible.  Otherwise the act of criticizing might do even more harm than good.

Shabbat Shalom! 

The Days of Our Lives

Posted on November 6, 2019

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

The older I get, the more I realize just how quickly time moves forward, seemingly without mercy. It’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago we were celebrating Simchat Torah and now are off and running in the programming year. It’s strange how quickly we (a staff and a community) are able to switch gears and move from one head space to the next, from the grandeur of the High Holy Days to the excitement of all the wonderful classes and programs which now require our attention. But, as the French say, c’est la vie—such is life!

And it really is that way. This week I celebrated a special birthday. True, any birthday we merit to celebrate is special, but this one has special significance for me. I turned 36, which as many of you know is “double chai.” For most people on the planet, the age of 36 signifies perhaps nothing more than being mathematically closer to 40 than to 30, but for us Jews there is deeper meaning to be found.

Chayim, the Hebrew word for life, is always written in the plural. Even when we will read in the Torah about the “lifetime of Sarah” (Chayei Sarah), we read this in plural form. I find that very interesting, and as one who enjoys playing with language I am drawn to attempt to understand why this might be. After much reflection (Chayei Sarah was my Bar Mitzvah Parasha, and this interesting use of plural about a single woman was one of the first things I noticed. So I suppose one could say I have been pondering this for 23 years!), I have come up with the following.

We all go through many distinct periods in our lives. There are, often, very clear “divisions” in our lives, and frequently these “divisions” are manifest in the way we live — a time we DEFINITELY changed a habit; a time we changed our level of religious observance; a time we changed the way we dress or the music we enjoy; and certainly there are moments in our life cycle such as becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, getting married or divorced, beginning or ending a job, etc., which define these distinct sections. 

In my own journey, this year is very significant—I have treated it like a starting-over point in many ways. I have made strong commitments to myself about the way I wish to live. I have adopted (hopefully) healthier habits around eating, I have decided to take up some activities which promote mental, spiritual and physical health, and I have committed to reading more for my own pleasure and personal growth. Oh yes — and in this, my double-chai year, I will begin a very significant new chapter in my life as I marry my incredible life partner, Robyn, who is my greatest support in all of these efforts. I have also committed myself to professional growth, working to grow my skills as a pastor, as a singer, and as a professional. 

Like Avram in this week’s Parasha, Lech Lecha, I don’t know where the journey will take me. But I felt an internal alarm wake me up and push me down a path of growth, of new experiences, and to do so with an open mind and an open heart. Avram, like Noah in last week’s Sidra, doesn’t answer God’s call with words. He simply acts. He does as he is told. The biblical narrative doesn’t give us any insight into his thought process, conversations with his wife, or questions to God. In my mind, Avram simply understands that a fantastic opportunity lies ahead and knows that he had best take advantage of it. On his journey we see his growth as a leader, a husband, a father, and a servant of God. He is not perfect, but he does well, and the lessons he teaches us about the journey of life are truly timeless. 

I pray that we all take the opportunity throughout our lives to make conscious decisions about beginning new chapters, trying new things, and continuing to grow into our best selves. I pray that we not only seek these opportunities, but recognize them when they come our way. And I pray that with each new chapter of our lives we recommit to our obligations to our faith, to God, and to making the world just a little bit better, Ish K’matnat Yado, each of us according to the unique gifts with which God has endowed us. Time moves mercilessly forward, and yet if we are able to recognize and take advantage of each moment we are gifted, we are sure to live lives of deep meaning and of purpose. 

See you in shul.



Notes on “The Spy”

Posted on October 30, 2019

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

The Netflix thriller “The Spy” is entertaining – as well as informative, inspiring, hilarious, heartbreaking, and illuminating. It was a window into Israeli history that I hadn’t looked through previously.

Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Eli Cohen, the Egyptian-born Israeli spy who embedded himself into the Syrian political and military hierarchy in the 1960’s. In this seriously-hard-to-believe story, he charmed his way into meeting key people, uncovered top secrets, and shared them with Israel. He reached awesome heights before the Syrians discovered his true identity and hanged him. His contributions to Israel’s security and military operations both in his lifetime and afterward were monumental. 

I have a few thoughts on finishing the series.

First, I can’t get over the fact that the international behemoth Netflix chose to produce and promote a slice of Israeli history. Less surprising but equally significant is that Amazon Prime Video just produced and released a new show called “TechTalk” that features 50 Israeli tech companies. There are several other current Israeli shows on each media platform as well. That little country of ours is getting a lot of screen time. 

Second, the show is a jarring reminder how precarious life in Israel was before its epic victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Set in the early years of that decade, “The Spy” shows viewers how fragile the country was and the enormous risks the government had to take in order to survive. Watching this on screen fit with what I have read about Israel’s history at the time. Before the ‘67 victory, the country was petrified of a possible second Holocaust, as its surrounding enemies sat perched closer to Israel’s population centers than they do today. From the civilian standpoint, the simple apartments, clothing, and playgrounds show that average Israelis lived very spartan lives. 

Third, the show is a reminder that Israel is not and was not a home for Jews who were exclusively white and Ashkenazi. When I was little I pictured Israel as full of European-origin Ashkenazi Jews because Israel was the Jewish state, and all the Jews I had met were white and Ashkenazi. (Now I know that is not true in the US and certainly Israel). True, these were the Jews who held political power for a long time; in the show, the important decision-makers like Dan are all Ashkenazi. But the show portrays how Israelis also came from the Middle East and how some spoke Arabic so well they could pass for Arab Muslims; Eli Cohen did for a long time. 

Finally, “The Spy” starkly portrays that Cohen chose country over family. We know this because when he returned to Syria for the final time he threw his Israeli citizen clothes all over the room, not bothering to fold them neatly for a return trip to his family that would never be. Without Cohen and many, many others placing Israel first, the State of Israel would be weaker, if it existed at all. 

I think the very end of the series is most telling. The postscript for Eli Cohen and his wife Nadia does not end the show. Instead, the last word goes to the Mossad recruiting the next spy for Israel. The message: Despite the horrific dangers, Israel needed a steady supply of brave citizens willing to cross into enemy territory to be its eyes and ears. 

When I think of the Israelis who made Israel possible, I have always thought first of the countless heroic men and women who put on the olive-green uniform of the IDF. But watching this show reminded me there were – and are – many more who lived in similar danger who protected Israel out of uniform as spies in hostile territory. Like Eli Cohen.



Posted on October 23, 2019

By Rabbi Schwab

Over Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the tragedy of the domestic terrorist attack one year ago on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven Jews were murdered during Shabbat services.  During that sermon (which you can read by clicking here) I called upon each of us to do our part in fighting anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry wherever they are found.  One of the main ways I proposed to do this was to claim and re-claim the joy of positive participation in Jewish life. 

In that spirit I share that on the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh attack, The American Jewish Committee has called on all people of good conscience to #ShowUpForShabbat on October 26th.  Beth El is honored to participate this year.  Please join us and come together to honor the 11 victims and raise our collective voice for a world free of anti-Semitism, hate, and bigotry.  We must all be united in combating anti-Semitism in our country and around the world.  And, as Jews, let us re-affirm our love for our heritage and strengthen ourselves as a people.  I will be “Showing Up for Shabbat” in New York at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah and I urge you to join Rabbi Freedman and Hazzan Tisser here at Beth El! 

Am Yisrael Chai!


Sukkot/January 2nd: Happy New Year!

Posted on October 16, 2019

By Rabbi Freedman

The most important day for New Year’s resolutions is January 2nd.  Not January 1st.

On January 1st – New Year’s Day – we may have resolved to do something better, like going to the gym more. We may have even exercised because work and school were canceled. But what happens on January 2nd? When work and school resume and you have to squeeze the workout into your busy day? To create the habit, you have to make it happen, not wait for it to happen. What happens on January 2nd is a better indicator of the year ahead than January 1st. 

Why does Sukkot, which concludes with Simchat Torah, occur now? Haven’t we been in shul enough over Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Why not celebrate Sukkot in another month without any holidays? 

I believe the answer is because Sukkot is like January 2nd. Together, the High Holidays mark not only the beginning of the year but a clean wiping of the slate. Sukkot offers the opportunity to start the year on the right foot and create the right habits: with Mitzvot, with joining as community in shul, with joining friends and family for quality time in the Sukkah. It’s the logical follow up to the High Holidays because Sukkot emphasizes what we think about on the High Holidays: relationships, community, and G-d. Maybe that’s why we’re supposed to begin building the Sukkah – even in a token way – the night of Yom Kippur break-fast. 

I wish you a joyful Sukkot!

From Oy to Joy (Sukkot)

Posted on October 10, 2019


by Hazzan Tisser 

In his Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Rabbi Schwab referenced a book by Professor Deborah Lipstadt, entitled Antisemitism: Here and Now; specifically, the final chapter, “From Oy to Joy.” As I sit at my computer just hours before we will gather for the opening service of Yom Kippur, I cannot think of a more appropriate title for the period of the next five days.  

Over the course of the next 25 or so hours, we will once again bring ourselves as close as we can to experiencing our own deaths. We will dress in white, without adornments of jewels and perfume; we will not eat nor drink; we will not bathe in luxurious fashion; and we will literally fall on our faces, begging for God’s kindness, until the shofar sounds at Neilah and we know we can then continue on with the work of a new year.  

Immediately after we get home (well, after pausing for a bagel, kugel, other varieties of sweet carbohydrates, and some coffee…), we begin preparations for the next holiday — Sukkot. We all know that Sukkot is the fall harvest festival…a time to connect with nature, to be with family, to eat in the sukkah, and with the seemingly strange custom of shaking some plants and a particular citrus in circles while reciting a b’racha… But Sukkot is so much more than that! Just as Yom Kippur has become, for many of us, the most sacred day of the year, Sukkot is, in the Rabbinic mind, “THE festival” (heh-chag), “THE time of joy!” (z’man simchateinu). 

So how are we supposed to switch gears so quickly? How do we confront our own mortality, our misdeeds, our least proud acts? How do we come before the Sovereign of Sovereigns, bowing down to the floor, begging for another chance to do better? How do we do this with our full beings, and then in almost an instant re-approach God with hearts full of joy, in beautifully decorated sukkot, and become our most joyous and festive selves?  

I want to propose that there are a number of ideas in each of these two seemingly disparate holy days which connect them very deeply. As I mentioned above, each one of these holidays demands that we experience one extreme or the other of the emotional spectrum — awesome fear on Yom Kippur (mixed, of course, with the joy of knowing at Neilah that we are forgiven), and extreme celebration on Sukkot. We start off the year by exposing ourselves to the highs and lows we will ultimately experience over the course of the year, all the while connecting ourselves more deeply to God, to community and to our families. There is something very poignant about this—it’s almost as if to remind us that to be successful in the work we set out to do over the course of the year, we must not keep to ourselves; we must keep close to God, and we must know that we have supportive and loving community and family to aid us on our journey…and that we must be present for them as well.  

Then there is an element of fragility which exists in both holidays as well. On Yom Kippur we examine the frailty of our lives. From our petitions to God to the Yizkor prayers, we cannot help but realize the limits of our own mortality. On Sukkot, of course, we are commanded to spend our meal times, and by some interpretations, even sleep, in the sukkah—a temporary structure which is completely vulnerable to nature, and which could theoretically collapse at any moment. I think that through these two expressions of fragility we can and should be reminded to enjoy and to maximize all of the wonderful things and opportunities which make our lives so rich.  

There are a number of other connective themes between these two days, and I would encourage you to think about the holidays themselves and then invite you to share—with each other, and with me—the connections you have been able to draw to create even deeper meaning and celebration over the next couple of weeks.  

In the meanwhile, it is my hope that over Yom Kippur you were able to experience moments of personal reflection, that perhaps you left the sanctuary changed or moved, even just a little bit, from how you felt when you entered. It is my prayer that all of your prayers be answered, and that all of our worthy deeds over the course of this year be blessed by the Holy One. May we ultimately find next week that just as we pray for God’s protection on Yom Kippur, we find that protection inside the Sukkat Shalom, the sukkah of peace, and that in that protection we find many things to be joyful about and to celebrate.  

From my family to yours, Hag Sukkot Same’ach