Monthly Archives: October 2016

Just Say Yes

Our little street in Newton Corner, right off the Mass Pike, has become a must go Halloween spot. Last year we went through over 30lbs of various goodies.  This year I’m expecting even more trick or treaters.

I’ve always loved Halloween. Collecting candy at night with friends, laughing, and having a great time: what could be better? It’s a wonderful American secular tradition, one I have always participated in. Now, to be perfectly honest, I don’t like wearing costumes. I don’t know why that’s the case. Maybe it’s the squeamish little boy in me who also hates to dance. But I love looking at the kids, and the occasional matching parent in full regalia when they come to the door for candy.

Given Halloween’s thoroughly secular character, it’s always surprised me that there are Jews who believe Halloween to be a treif (unkosher) day. As it says on the website

To many, if not most, American Jewish parents, participating in Halloween revelries is considered harmless fun. Increasingly, however, rabbis and educators have challenged Jewish participation in Halloween activities. To be fair, the holiday does have pagan origins, and it was later adopted by the Catholic Church.  So it is understandable why some Jews would be tepid about celebrating a religious holiday that was never their own.”

First of all, I would challenge the assertion that rabbis and Jewish educators have stepped up anti-Halloween rhetoric. I would bet that most Jewish professionals have no real problem with Halloween.

Second of all, for Jews to ban something because of its pagan origins seems ludicrous at best. Do you really think a lulav and an Etrog are not ancient pagan symbols of fertility? That the Urim and the Thummim, divination stones used by the priests, do not predate the First Temple? Acknowledging the pagan roots of a particular practice or custom is not idolatry if it has no current currency as a pagan ritual symbol.

Third, and most importantly: Contrary to Kveller’s assertion, Halloween is not a religious holiday! It’s only about having a good time. Period. There’s no religious imagery or content: Unless you worship sugar.


The Chabad website suggests “Make your kids feel that they are the vanguard. They belong to a people who have been entrusted with the mission to be a light to the nations–not an ominous light inside a pumpkin, but a light that stands out and above and shows everyone where to go. Forget about Halloween and wait for Purim to turn the neighborhood upside down!”

I would remind the author of that paragraph that Purim hardly shines a light of virtue and goodness. Remember the abiding obligation of Purim is to get drunk! Offering Purim as a substitute is a rather paltry offering. Purim is a Jewish holiday. Halloween is not a religious holiday for anyone.

As I advised last year, get out there and enjoy! With all of the trouble and pain and fear in the world, how nice to have a fun set of customs to share with others.



The Sukkah of Memory

I’m lucky to have a sukkah here at the temple. I like to walk into it and sit, have a nosh, shake my lulav and then go back into my office. It’s not that I’m such a stickler for performing mitzvoth; it’s just that Sukkot and some of its traditions are so evocative.

On the simplest level, Sukkot is a nostalgic holiday. It reminds me of the old days. Every year Liza and I would build a sukkah in our backyard and then encourage our kids and their friends to do Sukkot stuff. They’d decorate the sukkah with fruit and construction paper chains and pictures they’d draw with crayons and markers.

Every year we’d have a neighborhood party in the sukkah, asking folks to come over and enjoy the Fall colors and to have the fun of hanging out with a purpose. I’d make stews and chili and soups, gladly feeding anyone who came by. It was always so much fun and so fulfilling.

But when my nest emptied out, I stopped building a sukkah. It just didn’t feel right to have a lonely sukkah sit empty except for an occasional visit from me. That’s why I’m so happy to have a temple sukkah that’s filled with kids and grown-ups.

I rarely see the neighbors who used to come over for the Sukkot celebration at our place. It’s sad. I only have myself to blame for not keeping up the connections. This gradual self-isolation as one ages is pernicious. I didn’t realize that this is how it happens. As life circumstances change, where one intersects with others changes too. I like my neighbors a lot. Without the added effort, relationships fade away – not in anger or malice, but rather due to benign neglect. Things happen over time.

The sukkah reminds us that our ancestors wandered in the wilderness, dwelling in temporary shelters. The roof is purposely open to the heavens. In fact, if the stuff used for covering the sukkah roof is so thick that it protects sukkah dwellers from rain, then it is not kosher. In other words, we’re supposed to feel vulnerable.

We are not invincible. We’re not immortal. So every day that we have is a gift. As long as we can keep breathing, we can keep celebrating, thanking God for the frankly miraculous truth of being alive. Of course, we don’t need a sukkah for that… but it helps.




Tightrope Walking

Over the many Y’mei Kippur (plural form…)  of my life from childhood to just three days ago, there has been a wide variety of weather.  It’s been brutally hot. It’s been unseasonably cool. I’ve seen big rain storms. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end… As long the heat and/or the air conditioning was working, it didn’t matter what the weather was outside because I was inside: all day.
Yom Kippur is so… insular. It is all about diving so deeply into one’s heart. It’s all about going to the mirror and then with courage and honesty looking at what you see.
If that were the only work of Yom Kippur, to assess one’s level ofmenschlichkeit from over the past year, then dayenu; that would be enough. But the assessment is just the beginning. The work that begins before Rosh Hashanah and continues through Yom Kippur is acknowledging who’s looking back at you in the mirror, and then doing something about the flaws. In a world where Botox fills are increasingly popular and common, it’s worth noting that what causes the lines doesn’t disappear. Ignoring our sins and our flaws doesn’t mean they evaporate.
Through Yom Kippur we are following the lead described by poet Wendell Berry, who once wrote: “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
And then, three days after Yom Kippur it’s Sukkot. We go from the most insular and self-absorbed mindset to the most expansive place imaginable. We burst out of the synagogue and rush towards a hut made from cornstalks and decorated with fruit and vegetables. We leave the prayerbook and pick up a lulav and an etrog and shake them around. We go from a place where we contemplate our mortality to a place where we glorify the spark of life itself which animates all of nature, including us.
The lesson is deep: we can’t only be in the Yom Kippur world, a place of self-abnegation and internality. It’s too dark and lonely. But we also can’t be complete if we are only in the world of Sukkot, of externality and the Universal. We are complete only when we recognize that we need both perspectives to see ourselves and the world we live in.
It reminds me of a wonderful story about the Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunem who carried around two slips of paper, one for each front pocket. In one pocket was a quote from the Talmud: ” Bishvili nivra ha-Olam“-“For my sake, the world was created.” In the other pocket was a quote from the book of Genesis: “V’anokhi afar v’efer“-“I am but dust and ashes.”
God says, “You are the crown of creation.” Then God says, “I created you dead last. Even the mosquito was gifted with life before you.” We are everything. We are nothing. We are mortal. We are infinite.
We walk the tightrope of existence. It can be a fearsome thing, this journey. It’s a conglomeration of yeses and nos, of the best and the worst. It’s everything always at once. And it’s our life’s task to stay on this tightrope with all the turbulence and the contradictions. The idea is to keep moving and embrace it all, as wide as your arms can reach. It’s about remembering, as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan once wrote, “That the one not busy being born is busy dying.”

It’s Only Words, and Words Are All I Have…

From the month before Rosh Hashanah to the day after Yom Kippur, I am deluged with words. Hebrew words. English words. Transliterations from Hebrew to English characters. Prayer words. Poem words. Sermon words. If I had hair, I’d be tempted to tear it out…

At least I’m not a native Khmer speaker. Their alphabet contains 72 letters; an On Beyond Zebra phenomenon brought to life! Maybe I’d be better off in Suriname where about 400,000 people speak a Creole dialect called Sranan. There are 340 vocabulary words in Sranan, which is also called Taki Taki. How much can you say with 340 words? Apparently, enough.

So many words! Haim Nachman Bialik, the national poet of Israel, once wrote, “Every day, consciously and unconsciously, human beings scatter heaps of words to the wind, with all their various associations; few men indeed know or reflect on what these words were like in the days when they were at the height of their power.. . .”  And then there’s Flaubert’s heartbreaking truism from Madame Bovary, “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

Even as I write this critique of language and the excesses it engenders, I am aware of the fact that I’m using, well, words! It’s like if you watch yourself driving and then start to wonder, “How do I know I’m supposed to speed up or slow down? Am I sure this is the gas and not the brake?” Observing muscle memory can be disorienting.

Bialik and Flaubert were right. Words are cheap and often inadequate. They rarely match what we are really feeling. Then there is the endless bloviation of political hacks and cable’s talking heads. And I suppose it would be bad form not to admit, particularly on this Shabbat Shuva, the weekend between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my tendency to talk too much, and pollute the air a la Bialik, with heaps of words… It feels increasingly difficult to sift through all this verbiage for words that matter. It feels increasingly difficult to discern the difference between sincerity and spin – even in our speech, let alone the speech of others.

But what else are we to do? Most of us aren’t artists. Most of us aren’t poets. So all we have are words. Words are imperfect creations, just like us. With these imperfect tools, we are asked to do our best between now and Kol Nidre to ask those we have sinned against for forgiveness. We are also called upon to listen to the words of others, to forgive those who come to us with a truly repentant heart.

With my meagre words, I ask for your forgiveness if I have in any way let you down or hurt your feelings. It is a true blessing in my life to serve as your rabbi. I hope my words resonate with the gratitude I feel in my heart. Have a sweet and healthy new year and an easy fast.

Shabbat Shalom,