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Sukkot a message for the ‘me’ generation

Of all the festivals, Sukkot is surely the one that speaks most powerfully to our time. Kohelet could almost have been written in the 21st century. Here is the picture of ultimate success, the man who has it all – the houses, the cars, the clothes, the adoring women, the envy of others. He has pursued everything this world can offer from pleasure to possessions to power to wisdom and yet, surveying the totality of his life, he can only say, in effect, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

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Religion

RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS

Kohelet’s failure to find meaning is directly related to his obsession with the “I” and the “me”. “I built for myself. I gathered for myself. I acquired for myself.” The more he pursues his desires, the emptier his life becomes. There’s no more powerful critique of the consumer society, whose idol is the self, whose icon is the “selfie”, and whose moral code is “whatever works for you”. This is the society that has achieved unprecedented affluence, giving people more choices than they have ever known, and yet at the same time has experienced an unprecedented rise in alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, stress-related syndromes, depression, attempted suicide, and actual suicide. A society of tourists, not pilgrims, is not one that will yield the sense of a life worth living. Of all things people have chosen to worship, the self is the least fulfilling. A culture of narcissism quickly gives way to loneliness and despair.

Kohelet was also, of course, cosmopolitan – a man at home everywhere and therefore nowhere. This is the man who had 700 wives and 300 concubines, but in the end could only say, “More bitter than death is the woman.” It should be clear to anyone who reads this in the context of the life of King Solomon, the author of the book, that Kohelet is not really talking about women but about himself.

In the end, Kohelet finds meaning in simple things. “Sweet is the sleep of a labouring man.” “Enjoy life with the woman you love.” “Eat, drink and enjoy the sun.” That, ultimately, is the meaning of Sukkot as a whole. It’s a festival of simple things. It is, Jewishly, the time we come closer to nature than any other, sitting in a hut with only leaves for a roof, and taking in our hands the unprocessed fruits and foliage of the palm branch, the citron, twigs of myrtle, and leaves of willow. It’s a time when we briefly liberate ourselves from the sophisticated pleasures of the city and the processed artefacts of a technological age, where we take time to recapture some of the innocence we had when we were young, when the world still had the radiance of wonder.

The power of Sukkot is that it takes us back to the most elemental roots of our being. You don’t need to live in a palace to be surrounded by clouds of glory. You don’t need to be gloriously wealthy to buy yourself the same leaves and fruit that a billionaire uses in worshipping G-d. Living in the sukkah and inviting guests to your meal, you discover that the people who have come to visit you are none other than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives (such is the premise of ushpizin, the mystical guests). What makes a hut more beautiful than a home is that when it comes to Sukkot, there’s no difference between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. We are all strangers on earth, temporary residents in God’s almost eternal universe. And whether or not we are capable of pleasure, whether or not we have found happiness, nonetheless we can all feel joy.

Sukkot is the time we ask the most profound question about what makes a life worth living. Having prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be written in the Book of Life, Kohelet forces us to remember how brief life actually is, and how vulnerable. “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” What matters is not how long we live, but how intensely we feel that life is a gift we repay by giving to others. Joy, the overwhelming theme of the festival, is what we feel when we know that it is a privilege simply to be alive, inhaling the intoxicating beauty of this moment amidst the profusion of nature, the teeming diversity of life, and the sense of communion with those many others who share our history and our hope.

Most majestically of all, Sukkot is the festival of insecurity. It’s the candid acknowledgment that there’s no life without risk, yet we can face the future without fear when we know we are not alone. G-d is with us, in the rain that brings blessings to the earth, in the love that brought the universe and us into being, and in the resilience of spirit that allows a small and vulnerable people to outlive the greatest empires the world has ever known. Sukkot reminds us that G-d’s glory was present in the small, portable tabernacle Moses and the Israelites built in the desert even more emphatically than in Solomon’s Temple with all its grandeur. A temple can be destroyed. But a sukkah, even if broken, can be rebuilt tomorrow. Security is not something we can achieve physically, but it’s something we can acquire mentally, psychologically, and spiritually. All it needs is the courage and willingness to sit under the shadow of G-d’s sheltering wings.

•             Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He is an international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author, and respected moral voice. The article is taken from www.rabbisacks.org.

 

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Religion

Why we refuse to forget

Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

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Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.

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Religion

Strength in diversity

The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

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Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul

Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.

The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”

The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.

In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.

The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.

And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.

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Religion

Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health

There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)

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Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy

The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?

The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.

What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?

Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.

Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.

Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.

In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.

Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.

The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.

Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.

Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.

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