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    The fresh lulav

    September 29th, 2020

    The law of the lulav begins, “You shall take… on the first day…” (Lev. 23:39-40).

    The Torah is talking about the first day of the Sukkot festival, which falls in the middle of the month and is never on a Sunday.

    From a homiletical point of view, the Torah is telling us that even though half the month is over, we can start a new thought symbolised by taking a fresh lulav in mid-month. The same idea works with Pesach, which falls on the 15th of the month of Nisan.

    It has an application to Jewish history: though we are not a new people starting its journey, nor a redeemed people at the culmination of history’s course, we can always find something new to think and do.

    Similarly with human beings as a whole, who even in mid-career can be invigorated with new ideas, new challenges, new opportunities and new energy.

    Swapping chairs

    September 29th, 2020

    Where do you sit in the sukkah?

    The Shabbat table is not the best precedent, partly because the dining room is generally big enough to fit everyone in. Families usually have their Shabbat table places worked out. It is more or less taken for granted that everyone has a set place.

    The sukkah, in comparison, is relatively small, the conditions are often cramped, and there are rules about which members of the family need to be accommodated. Family dynamics need to be re-addressed, and hardly anyone remembers where they sat last year.

    A Swedish-American thinker called Milton Erikson has a remarkable idea. He says that even if you know where you sat in the past it’s good to alter things around. You get a fresh perspective. You reconsider your outlook and everybody’s place in the family.

    Erikson was often consulted about human problems and had the revolutionary idea of telling people to change chairs.

    Maybe that’s why Pir’kei Avot (2:4) tells us not to judge our neighbour unless we have stood in their place.

    The sanctity of silence

    September 29th, 2020

    German sukkah from the 19th century on display at the Israel Museum

    Not everything in Rav Kook’s poetic philosophy is easy to understand. But some ideas immediately grip you.

    An example is his phrase, “the sanctity of silence”, in his Arpilei Tohar. He says that this is the highest degree of sanctity.

    We might borrow the phrase and suggest that though being in company is a moment of sanctity, as is speaking to each other, the supreme sanctity is just being there and looking around physically or metaphorically and grasping the greatness of everything in Creation.

    The festival of Sukkot is an example. It takes us away from the noise and bustle of ordinary civilisation into the quietness of Nature in which every tree, every flower, every plant and every branch is unspoken testimony to the existence of the Eternal.

    A culture of celebration

    September 29th, 2020

    It’s strange that a culture of celebration is intrinsic to Judaism but almost unknown in Christianity. Christians don’t have yom-tovs.

    In a work called “Theology of Play”, Christian Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann says it is because Christianity inclines to asceticism.

    There is a highly regrettable and unhistorical Christian antagonism to the Pharisees, but the truth about the Pharisees is that they had ten words for joy and stood for the simchah shel mitzvah that gave every Jewish family the yom-tov joy that brought God into the humblest house and family.

    Yom Kippur dreams without shule

    September 25th, 2020

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 25 September, 2020.

    Dreams are odd things. We never know when to expect them. They come upon us at the strangest moments. Sometimes they are pleasant, sometimes ugly. They can evoke places, persons and periods that vanished years ago.

    In my case they mostly awaken thoughts of shule, probably because most of my life was played out in and around synagogues.

    This year when I can’t go to shule and will probably daven in the carpark minyan at a nearby block of flats, I am sometimes woken up at night by shule dreams about the funny things that happened on Yom Kippur.

    Like the year when we had security problems and the guards stopped an Israeli diplomat from entering the building with a revolver.

    Or the year when everyone had to say “Shema Yisra’el” to the non-Jewish security man.

    Or the year when a member seemed to have a gun with him but it was only a stick of “wurst” for after the fast (did he realise how it would smell all day?).

    I also have “rabbi” thoughts about the Yom Kippur sermons I used to give and how hard it was to make myself audible in such a vast building with such a massive attendance.

    I think of the year in London when I didn’t need to prepare a Neilah sermon because the previous year I felt ill during the afternoon, needed an appendicitis operation, and delayed the Neilah sermon till the following year.

    This year I won’t be giving any sermons. Nor will the big crowds gather. Even those who used to walk home for miles on Kol Nidrei night and were exhausted when they came back the following morning.

    Most of the synagogues will echo with the silence. Some will have services for scattered congregations. COVID has changed the norm.

    Many people have been warned they are high risk by reason of age or illness. My wife and I are in the old-age cohort but we are fortunate that we have a minyan to go to. Others will have to stay home.

    Not everyone will be able to say the Yom Kippur prayers. Some will recall the traditional tunes even if they aren’t too sure of the words and will content themselves with humming the melodies. Everyone will miss the feeling of community.

    One of the things we can all do during the week is contacting our shule neighbours to see how they are doing.

    Hopefully, with or without a shule or minyan to go to – many will find themselves thinking Yom Kippur thoughts. Such as: What have I become? Have I made even a slight difference to the world? Would anyone miss me if I weren’t here?

    There will hopefully be some Jewish thoughts. For example: Do I know enough about my faith? Could I increase the amount of Jewishness in my life? Could I cope long term without the synagogue?

    There have to be Israel thoughts. How much does Israel mean to me with all its (and my) failings? Can the media be trusted in its view of Israel? What have Israel and the Holocaust contributed to the strengthening of civilisation?

    There are so many things to work out about ourselves and who, what and where we are.

    In my case there will be some “rabbi” thoughts. Did I do anything really important for Jews and Judaism in my lengthy rabbinic career? Did I speak, write and teach adequately as a rabbi? Should I have been a better people-person, showing more real interest in what people were doing?

    These days I daydream (and have night-time reveries) about myself and about my fellow Jews and Israelis. If I weren’t there would anyone really notice (apart, I hope, from my wife and family)?

    I have enjoyed being Jewish. Has Jewishness enjoyed me? I hope (Im Yirtzeh HaShem) to be back in shule next year … see you there!

    #coronavirus #corona #covid-19 #covid19