Shemeni Atzeret & Simchat Torah

October 11, 2017

After the drama of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Simcha of dwelling in God’s presence on Sukkot, we come to a holiday where big highlight is simply praying for rain. In a society where most of us don’t depend directly on the rain for our livelihoods, this can feel like a bit of a letdown. For those of us not living in the land of Israel, and especially as changes in technology and our economy in the last century or so have helped to mask the impact of the weather on our food, livelihood and security, the importance of praying for rain may have become obscured. Instead our focus on this holiday has shifted towards more purely spiritual aspects of the holiday, especially the moment on the second day of Shemini Atzeret (aka Simchas Torah) when we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading.

However, in 2017, here in Sacramento, with years of severe drought fresh in our memories, and fires actively raging not far from our community, the importance of rain to our prosperity and our safety should be lost on no one. It is no accident that at the climax of our holiday season we pray for rain. Rain is not only a symbol of the Torah and of God’s shefa (abundance). It is itself perhaps the most recognizable physical manifestation of God’s generosity in our lives. This year, let’s give the prayer for rain the serious attention it deserves, as we ask God to bless us with rain here in California and in Eretz Yisrael.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Garth Silbertein

Sukkot

WEDNESDAY, October 4th

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday night we mark the beginning of Sukkot, often referred to as zman simchaseinu, the season of our joy. It can feel dissonant to speak of the season of our joy after a season during which we’ve seen three major hurricanes wreak destruction on our country, with the territory of Puerto Rico hardest hit and facing a long and difficult recovery, a season in which we’ve seen white supremacists openly and proudly march in the streets of an American city while chanting “Jews will not replace us,” a season in which only this week we saw a heavily armed shooter kill more than 50 people and injure ten times more in Las Vegas.

With so much to grieve for, how can we speak of a season of joy?

It is no accident that zman simchaseinu is a holiday when we sleep outside in a hut that lets in the rain and the wind and the cold and the heat. One of the lessons of Sukkot is that simcha (joy) doesn’t come from being safe and comfortable. Simcha isn’t the absence of pain or discomfort or even sadness, rather it is an emotion that can live alongside these experiences. I remember once saying goodbye to a close friend, whom I knew I might never see again. As I bid them farewell with tears in my eyes, I felt deep sorrow, but at the same time, I felt a kind of joyful gratitude that I could love someone so deeply. Not every grief is accompanied by joy in this way, but I bring the example to illustrate that we can feel joy and sorrow at the same time or in close proximity. What we cannot do is numb ourselves to grief, without numbing ourselves to joy as well. Dwelling in the sukkah, where we are vulnerable to the elements, reminds us that experiencing deep joy requires an openness to feelings and experiences that might be less pleasant as well.

The more we try to shut out or ignore the things that are frightening and scary, the more we close ourselves off to what’s really happening around us – the more we cut ourselves off from profound joy. At this season of simcha, I encourage each of us to give ourselves permission to be sad over the very real tragedies in our country, in our world, and in our own personal lives. Making room for sorrow and grief does not prevent us from experiencing joy—just the opposite: it can actually open us up to more opportunities for real simcha.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Yom Kippur

FRIDAY, September 29th

Dear Friends,

During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we focus on doing Teshuvah, leaving behind negative behaviors and returning to positive mitzvot we have neglected, there is a long-standing tradition of increasing our tzedakah and other worthy deeds. This is not just a matter of trying to be good for ten days to “trick” God into giving us a favorable judgment on Yom Kippur—obviously the One who knows our innermost thoughts is not susceptible to such tricks. Rather, I would suggest this is about behaving a little more righteously for these ten days in the hopes that some of this positive behavior sticks with us in the year to come.

Each year on Yom Kippur, we read the warning of Yishayahu that fasting and prayer are not enough, if we don’t also attend to the needs of our larger community. “Surely this is the fast I choose: To break open the shackles of wickedness, to undo the bonds of injustice, and to let the oppressed go free, and annul all perversion. Surely you should break your bread for the hungry and bring the moaning poor to your home; when you see a naked person, clothe him; and do not hide yourself from your kin.”

One simple way of heeding Yishayahu’s stirring message, is to take the money we are saving on food by fasting on Yom Kippur and donate it to help feed others. This helps connect the introspective nature of fasting to the outward-focused concern of giving tzedakah. The organization Fast for Feast (http://www.fastforfeast.org/kitc) makes it easy to donate the money you would have spent on food to fight hunger both here in Sacramento and in Israel. If we all do this, our small individual donations will combine to make a meaningful impact. I encourage everyone to join me in supporting this effort, along with the other tzedakah you would normally be giving at this time of year.

G’mar Chatima Tovah!

Garth Silberstein

Parshat Ki Tavo

FRIDAY, September 8th

Our Parsha this week includes a long passage enumerating the blessings that await us if we serve God and the curses that will follow if we do not. Among these is the warning that if we fail to obey God, “In the morning you will say, ‘if only it were evening,’ and in the evening you will say ‘if only it were morning,’ because of the dread that your heart shall dread and the sights that your eyes shall see.” (Dev. 28:67) Rashi explains that this means that in the morning we will be longing for the previous evening, and in the evening, the previous morning, always longing for the past, because each moment things will be getting worse and worse. Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) disagrees, saying the plain meaning is that when the curses come upon us, we will be waiting impatiently for the future, like someone sick, wishing time would pass more quickly. Whether Rashi or Rashbam have the correct interpretation, in effect the curse is the same. Dissatisfaction with the present, expressed as longing for another time, is a curse in and of itself, regardless of external circumstances.

The great 19th century scholar, the Natziv explains that the last part of the verse, “because of the dread that your heart shall dread and the sights that your eyes shall see,” describes two different sources of suffering:  “the sights that your eyes shall see” refers to real dangers, while “the dread that your heart shall dread” means that we will imagine dreadful things even where there are none. Interestingly, the Torah mentions the imagined fears before it does the real ones. Perhaps this is because our own internal assumptions, prejudices, and dispositions influence our perception of reality, more than concrete facts and experiences. This means that the curse about longing for night when it is morning and longing for morning when it is night is as much about our own state of mind as it is about negative circumstances.

Many of us spend much of our lives caught between nostalgia for the past and looking forward to (or dreading) the future. It’s much rarer to simply focus on the experience of the present, whether that experience is joyful or sad, pleasurable or painful. If constantly longing for the past and the future is in itself a curse, let us practice being alive to our present reality and really doing everything we can in the present to make our lives and the world around us a little bit better.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein