Thursday, November 8, 2018

Why I Wore a Kippah to Vote

This Tuesday morning, I wore my kippah, the customary head covering many Jews wear in synagogue. We cover our heads as reminder that God is always present.

As I entered the local elementary school to vote, I donned my kippah. I don’t wear a kippah all the time. Typically I wear one when leading prayer services or when teaching a class or when officiating at a wedding or funeral. I don’t wear one when doing any manner of everyday activities, such as grocery shopping or going for a walk or for that matter, venturing to town hall.

This occasion, however, needed to be sanctified–most especially this year, and during these times.

Voting seems like such a mundane affair....

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Responding to the Pittsburgh Massacre

At Shabbat evening services we gathered together to celebrate Shabbat and stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I began the service with these words:
I never imagined that I would stand before our congregation and have occasion to speak about such violent and deadly antisemitism in our own country. The fact that someone acted on his desire that all Jews must die seems unimaginable to me. I recognize that violent antisemitism is part of our American history. Leo Frank, for example, was lynched in the early 1900’s. But that seemed a unique circumstance and I could dismiss it as “back then.” Sure, in my own day, there were antisemitic comments said here or there, and there was Nazi graffiti scrawled on synagogues, but nothing ever of this scale.

Such acts only happened over there, in Europe. Perhaps, we even quietly said to ourselves, it could happen in the South or in the far reaches of the West. Such horrific acts of terror aimed at Jews happened in Israel. But not, we believed, here. This week has taught us otherwise.

We are pained. And our hearts are filled with sorrow. We are even angry. This evening we gather to sing our songs, and offer our prayers, and bring comfort to our troubled souls. But even our most cherished songs seem inadequate when pressed against this massacre. And yet we will sing and rejoice at the gift of Shabbat. On this day more than any others, we will do so in defiance of the world and the hate it brings to our doorstep. We celebrate the Sabbath so as to assuage our anger and heal our pain. We sing so as to fill our hearts with gratitude.

And I am grateful that so many have come here, on this Shabbat evening, to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. I welcome the guests who have joined us and most especially our local clergy: Reverend Jeff Prey, of First Presbyterian Church, Father Kevin Smith, the Pastor of St. Dominic's Church and Dr. John Yenchko, the Pastor of North Shore Community Church as well as their parishioners. Your presence gives us strength. Your willingness to join with our community gives us hope. On every Friday evening we begin with the same song, Hineh Mah Tov. On this evening it takes on added meaning.

Hineh mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim gam yachad. How good and pleasing it is that brothers and sisters join together.

Later I offered this sermon:
The Jewish tradition teaches that Amalek is the paradigm of evil. He, and his followers, attacked the ancient Israelites as they wandered through the desert. He attacked them from the rear. He attacked the stragglers and the weakest. This is what we saw happen this past Shabbat. People who went to synagogue to celebrate and pray, who faced the Ark to beseech their God, who relished in holding the Torah scroll in their arms were gunned down in a sanctuary that is supposed to only serve as a place of respite and peace.

Let us be forthright. Antisemitism is on the rise. Gun violence is a daily occurrence. Hate speech increases with each news cycle. These are our new realities.

What happened at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue is partly attributed to the gun violence that plagues American society. Automatic weapons, and guns made for military use, make such acts exponentially more lethal. And that should be said again and again, until we find some measure of regulating our society’s love affair with guns.

But what makes this instance different and unique is that Jews were purposely targeted. A man filled with rage and obsessed about Jewish conspiracies, fueled by the common cause he found on the internet set out to kill as many Jews as possible. The internet is like kindling for the blood libels, stereotypes and hateful rhetoric that have always been part and parcel to antisemitism. Any manner of idea can find compatriots not only in the web’s darkest corners but in the very tools we use day in and day out. They are a mere like away on Facebook.

Moreover, when our political leaders, demonize other human beings, whether they be immigrants, Muslims or Mexicans, antisemites breathe easier. When the events of Charlottesville are dismissed, when the differences between protesters and Nazis are equivocated, antisemites think to themselves, “Look at how many people agree with us.” Silence is interpreted as assent. Words really do matter. That is one of our tradition’s most important teachings. Words can hurt. They can heal. They can incite violence. They can lead us to peace. They can divide us. And they can lead to unity.

In the face of antisemitism, in the face of hatred and the demeaning of others who are different than ourselves, there is only one response, and that is to say loudly, “This is not us. This is not America.”

Perhaps this violent antisemitism was always here in the United States, perhaps it always bubbled under the surface. In recent years it appears to have found new air. I have studied enough history to know that antisemitism has a stubborn fortitude. We have found it in every country in which we have settled. Even in Israel, the place we believed would be this solution to this perennial challenge, Islamist leaders have resurrected the worst, and most lethal, of history’s antisemitic tropes. Still I never imagined it could become so devastatingly violent here, in my home, in our United States. Some might have thought this a naïve belief. I fear they may have been proven right. Still I stubbornly hold on to the notion that this place to which my grandparents immigrated, this country in which my family has made our home, is different. It is unique.

In how many lands would there be such outpouring of love and support from those who are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and others? Here there is a sense that if one faith is attacked all are attacked. That is the notion to which I cling. In how many countries would a local paper be emblazoned with the Jewish prayer for mourning? On the front page of this morning’s Pittsburgh paper are the opening words of the kaddish, written in Hebrew: yitgadal v’yitkadash… And my heart is buoyed by the presence of my friends who are here this evening. We may be of different faiths, but we are bound together. When one is attacked all are attacked. The fact that you have joined us on this occasion, to sit with us and join in our prayers, is a testament to the greatness of our nation and the notion that we are stronger than the hate that travels across our computer screens and the violence that fills our schools, movie theatres, malls, and sanctuaries.

In fact, I learned the meaning of sanctuary not from studies of Jewish texts but from Reverend Ramirez. Years ago, my congregation met at the Brookville Reformed Church. We did so for some ten years. Central to this congregation’s tradition was the notion that their sanctuary doors were never locked. A sanctuary must always be open. Anyone could come to the sanctuary and find solace and comfort within its walls. On occasion, when our students met in the social hall for Hebrew School, someone would wander into the sanctuary to sit and pray. I would sometimes find people there. Sometimes they sat in the dark and I would offer to turn on the lights. I could sometimes hear their cries as they prayed. Despite my offers to talk, they often preferred to sit in silence and pray. And that is the image I am holding on to.

An open sanctuary. A sanctuary in which people are shielded from the troubles of the world, a sanctuary in which any manner of person is welcome. People might tell you that a Jew can’t really be friends with a Christian or with a Muslim or with people of different faiths. They don’t really understand what America represents. We have a choice between walls that divide us or open doors that invite others in. Open doors are what should define us.

The only way out of this dark week is through these open doors. Shutting others out leads nowhere. America is about finding a place for differences. It is about finding a home for ourselves and right by our sides, a home for others.

This week we read, in our weekly Torah reading, about the death of Abraham and Sarah. They are both buried in the contested city of Hebron. In a fascinating turn, Isaac and Ishmael, the two estranged brothers, one who is the father of the Jewish people and the other, Muslims look to as their patriarch, come together to bury their father Abraham. They live in different lands. Ishmael lives in Egypt, apart from his father and brother, who live in the land of Canaan. Isaac’s mother Sarah forbids any contact between Isaac and Ishmael. And yet Ishmael shows up at Abraham’s burial. He is there by his brother’s side, so they can together grieve for their father. How can this be?

There is only one answer. Isaac kept the door open. He stayed in touch with his brother. That must be the choice we make.

There are voices that seek to divide us, and separate us from one another, and keep us far apart and at a distance, that seek to portray the other as alien and foreign. And if we listen, if we heed these voices, we will find ourselves unable to fight the demons that grow in our midst. We will find ourselves at odds with the very values that have made this country great. That is not a choice I am willing to make. Antisemitism may be stubborn in its perseverance. But I promise to be just as stubborn in my response. I promise to hold on to others despite our differences.

We may be different. We may pray in different manners. We may surround ourselves with different images, but we are one. And together we must say, what happened in Pittsburgh last week is not us and it will never again be us. It can never be a part of the America we all call home. Amen v’Amen.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bring Peace!

On Saturday evening I stood with 200 other cyclists watching the sunset over Makhtesh Ramon, a large box canyon in the Negev desert. It was then that we began to learn about the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We made Havdalah and sang to Elijah the prophet, who we pray will one day bring peace to the world. We sang in defiance of the world and the troubles it too often brings us. Even when that hope seems distant, we continue to sing.

This is what Jews do. We stand up against adversity. Sometimes with song. Other times with political action. Always with the hope that the future can be better than the past. We are defiant in the face of adversity. We pray for peace when it appears impossible. If Jews had allowed history to defeat them, there would be no State of Israel. I could not have spent the past week riding through stretches of desert that took my breath away. That is always the first and most important lesson we should take into our hearts.

And this coming Shabbat, we will sing even more loudly, and perhaps even more defiantly. We will meet as we always do on Friday evening at 7 pm. Feel free to invite your friends and neighbors. I have received messages from Christian and Muslim friends who want me to know that their hearts are joined with ours. Invite such friends to join you at services.

The next day, on Sunday morning we gathered at the same spot, again overlooking the Makhtesh, to offer prayers and begin the day of riding. The Israel Ride has a tradition that someone different carries a small Torah scroll every day of the ride. A couple from the Pittsburgh synagogue, who still did not know who among their friends and fellow congregants were alive or dead, was given this honor. They carried the Torah. And they rode. They moved forward. And then for the last day the scroll was given to a young woman who will help to carry our people forward.

We move toward the future. We hope for a day of peace. We ride forward.

This ride is about more than cycling. It is about making peace. It is about bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians together around their shared concern for the environment. At the Arava Institute, they do not avoid confronting disagreements. They do not avoid the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Students are in fact forced to discuss these issues and conflicts with their colleagues. But then after they scream at each other and cry about their own pain, they sit and eat their meals, together as one.

The institute is also about so much more than studying the environment. It lives by the principle that it is far more difficult to hate when the stranger becomes a friend rather than a caricature.

Until Charlottesville, we believed our country would always be a safeguard against antisemitism and that we would never again know the feelings of the stranger. This past Shabbat was a deadly reminder that in our own country, the very place that we have felt at home for generations, there are still those who “want all Jews to die.” This past Shabbat was a violent wake-up call that as much as we wish our sanctuary to be a refuge from the troubles of the outside world, contemporary events too often pierce that solace. They tear away at the joy which is the essence of Shabbat.

And yet perhaps this Shabbat can offer us something else. The Sabbath is also “vayinafash”. It is a day when our souls are meant to be restored. Perhaps our faith can be restored in our neighbors. And our hope can be restored in our country. I have invited my friends and local Christian clergy to our services. Their presence will help to bolster my faith. We can pray and sing so as to banish the terror that seeps into our hearts. And at the very least, our songs will buttress our hope.

The synagogue’s board and I will of course review our security protocols. We take the safety of everyone who enters through our doors very seriously. We will of course update you after our discussions. Nonetheless the secret to fighting hatred, antisemitism, and terror is found more in our hearts. It is discovered by teaching about peace. It is found in speaking out against those who sow hatred.

And so, I can promise you this. Shabbat will help to strengthen our hearts. It will help to restore our souls.

We will mourn. We will also sing.

And we will once again wish each other a “Shabbat Shalom.”

A day of peace.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Sacrifice Your Certainty

The tradition lionizes Abraham. He is among our greatest of heroes. We recall his name every time we stand to recite the Amidah. We remember his fortitude, and remind God of our forefather’s devotion, in our prayers. Abraham was tested ten times and each time not only persevered but emerged stronger. Last week he left his native land when God commanded him to do so. And then at God’s insistence, he circumcised himself at the age of 99.

And this week we read of his final test: the command to sacrifice his son Isaac. We also read this story on Rosh Hashanah. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Without hesitation he marches off early in the morning, with Isaac, to do God’s bidding. He carries with him all the tools for this sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac journey for three days to Mount Moriah. You might have thought that he would have changed his mind. You might have thought Isaac would inspire uncertainty, and doubt, about his faith.

Abraham was, however, single minded in his devotion. Only at the last moment does God stay Abraham’s hand. “Do not raise your hand against the boy…” God calls. In Isaac’s place Abraham sacrifices a ram. On Rosh Hashanah we sound the shofar in remembrance of Abraham’s devotion. We remind God of what our ancestor was willing to do. On the place where we believe Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac the Temple was built, and the Western Wall now stands.

I continue to ask, “Who would take a knife to their child? Who would sacrifice their son?” It is a harrowing story. And if I introduced you to someone who did what Abraham did you would rightly say he is crazy.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, responds. He bravely suggested that that Abraham misunderstood God.

Many people think they know what God wants. And plenty of people continue to do crazy things in religion’s name. Rosenzweig also remarked that all we can be certain of when it comes to God’s revelation is its first word, “Anochi—I.” Everything after that word in the opening phrase of Sinai’s revelation, “I am the Lord your God…” is interpretation.

All we can know for sure is that God exists. Discerning what God wants of us, however, is a lifelong pursuit. We continue to interpret. We continue to struggle.

Too often people allow their certainty to blind them and impel them to make terrible decisions and even do horrible deeds. How else can we understand the demand to sacrifice a child? We tend to become overzealous of our interpretations. We shout, “I know what this means. I understand this. I am certain of God’s truth.” We tend to hold on to these certainties as if they are the greatest sources of meaning.

Perhaps this is what we should sacrifice.

Our certainty.

And perhaps this is why God stays Abraham’s hand.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Abraham, Albert and Armando

I am thinking about immigrants and refugees.

Perhaps it is because I recently watched this moving video about a New York synagogue’s custodian, Armando:

Perhaps it is because the Trump administration has reduced the number of refugees allowed into this country to a four decade low. Or perhaps it is because the administration continues its policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. Then again perhaps it is because the president today threatened to take military action to stem the flow of people trying to cross the US-Mexico border.

Immigration continues to captivate my thoughts and animate my concerns.

I turn to this week’s Torah portion.

In it God commands Abraham to leave his native home and journey to the land of Canaan. There God will make him a great nation. And so what does Abraham and his wife, Sarah, do? They go. They travel from what is today modern day Iraq and make their way to what will become the place that Jews continue to hold in their hearts, the land of Israel.

Our Jewish story begins by leaving home. Our journey begins because Abraham got up and left. We are forever defined by journeying. Even the term Hebrew, Ivri, means to cross over. What makes us Jews is leaving and going, and crossing over one border to another.

This is why we say at the Passover seders, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We think that holiday celebration is about the blessing of gaining freedom and escaping slavery. It is of course. That is its larger message. But Passover is also about affirming wandering. Passover is about going out. It is about leaving. And the most interesting, and curious, thing is that we never arrive. The seder concludes with a promise.

We only leave. We never get to where we are going. We conclude, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Next year it will be better. Next year our lot will be improved. We say goodbye to our seder guests with a lingering hope on our lips.

This is the immigrant’s dream. The Jewish hope is the refugee’s dream. Abraham embodies every immigrant’s aspiration and every refugee’s longing. They say, “We are leaving. We are running. Because there it can be better. Because tomorrow can be better than today.” That’s why people try to sneak across borders or why they risk their children’s lives by placing them in rickety boats. That’s why Abraham left Haran. He had faith in the promise of tomorrow. Next year it will be better.

This is our people’s most important legacy. “Next year” encapsulates our ethos. The hope that tomorrow can be better than today. That’s why Abraham runs. That’s why people continue to try to cross over dangerous borders.

Today we recall the many Jewish immigrants who found their way to this country’s shores. Today we recall that 85 years ago today Albert Einstein arrived in the United States as a refugee.

Today we reaffirm this Jewish hope when we read (again) about Abraham’s journey

Who among these “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” will be the next Albert? Who among these “homeless, tempest-tost” will be the next Abraham?

Friday, October 12, 2018

Doing Good

This week we read the story about Noah and the flood. The portion opens with the words: “This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6). Noah’s character is highlighted. He was a pretty remarkable guy. He was righteous. He was blameless. He walked with God. This must be why God called him and commanded him to build the ark.

“The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, children of the Lord…”.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak, more commonly known as Rashi, who lived in 11th century France, and wrote a line by line commentary on the entire Bible, as well as a commentary on the Talmud, asked, “Why does the Torah add the words ‘in his generation?’” It is an interesting question. Are not righteous and blameless objective terms? Rashi offers the following clarification:
Some of our Rabbis explain “in his generation” to Noah’s credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of his good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
It is a fascinating insight. Was Noah deemed righteous and blameless only in comparison to the evil and lawless generation in which he lived? Or would he be called righteous and blameless in any generation? Could he stand next to Abraham? Or had he lived among the greatest of our ancestors would he have been a nobody? I wonder.

Is doing good a matter of comparison? Or can we determine some objective measure of what it means to do good?

I think of those who helped Jews survive the Holocaust. Some did little more than offer a potato to a fleeing Jew. Even such a small act was heroic. The Nazis shot and killed people for doing far less. We would easily call such a person righteous.

Once, when walking along the streets of New York, a homeless man approached me and begged for food. I went with him to a nearby bagel store and bought him a coffee and bagel. We spoke briefly.

Two similar acts. One heroic. The other quite ordinary, although perhaps unusual. The difference is of course the context. The evil surrounding the first transforms the gift of a potato into an act of courage, heroism and righteousness.

Righteousness depends entirely on the generation in which we find ourselves.

And that leads me to a prayer. May we never know such times. May our days be so ordinary that they only demand of us simple and ordinary acts of kindness.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Growing Up

I see traces of the Bible in contemporary events. Perhaps I can’t help it. I am a rabbi. And yet the contours of its revelatory truths appear clearer today than in many previous years.

Soon after God creates the world in all its beauty, splendor and majesty, God fashions man out of the earth. The world is still imperfect. Loneliness must be corrected. So God creates woman out of man’s rib. Adam and Even are happy and content in that idyllic garden of Eden. God gives them one warning: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it.” (Genesis 2)

Once, when my children were in high school, Susie and I left them home alone. (Our children would say that it was on more than one occasion.) We gave them one warning: “We are going to the city for a wedding this evening. We won’t be home until late. Don’t throw any parties at the house.” We trusted them. We knew they were responsible. We might not find out what really happened until their confirmation hearings.

About Adam and Eve, however, we know what happens. They eat the forbidden fruit. The rabbis, by the way, suggest it was an etrog. That beautiful Sukkot lemon offers a sweet smell, but a bitter taste. God gets angry. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. Really, it is the talking snake’s fault? Really, you did not enjoy the taste of the fruit?

They are banished from paradise. The rest is history. And the remainder our story.

Perhaps this particular tale is meant to teach us about taking responsibility for our actions and owning our mistakes. God means to test Adam and Eve. God tests us each and every day. God asks: “Ayekah—where are you?” God knows where Adam and Eve are. They, however, do not know where they stand. They do not recognize their mistakes and failures. Until that is done a person does not know where they are.

As we begin the Torah reading anew I am given to recall that it means to teach us about taking responsibility. To be sure, many of the Torah’s stories are about our heroes’ failures to live up to their responsibilities. We gain lessons from their mistakes. We gain lessons from our mistakes.

Among the more frustrating, and upsetting, refrains heard during this past week is: “It was high school.” Almost everyone I know did stupid things in high school. I most certainly did things I now regret. But youth, and the garden, are supposed to be about learning from those mistakes and growing from them.

God banishes Adam and Eve not because they ate the fruit. It is instead because when given the opportunity to admit their mistakes they blame others. “My friend made me play the drinking game” is not, for example, a statement about growing and learning.

Denial and blame are not roads to adulthood. We can only truly know where we are when we admit our mistakes.

It is a difficult test, to be sure, but one that most certainly leads to nobility.

The Torah continues to reveal.

Friday, September 28, 2018

What Made King David a Great Leader

I am thinking about King David. Yes, the Jewish hero king, who unified the southern and northern kingdoms 3,000 years ago, declared Jerusalem our spiritual center and killed the giant Goliath.

I have often thought about him when our nation is riveted by scandal and riven by discontent. I have thought about David before—first when Professor Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee (yes, I am that old), and then when President Clinton evaded telling the truth about his affairs, and now again as I watch Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s denials.

King David was an extraordinarily powerful man. He also had unrivaled character.

One day David spied Batsheva bathing on a rooftop near the palace....

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Language, Words and Letters

Edmond Jabes, a 20th century French Jewish poet, writes:   
“Thinking pulls back the thick veil covering the universe, only to replace it with another so thin we barely guess it is there.”
We perceive the word only through this transparent veil,” he said.
And added: “What if this veil were language?”
Soon we will roll the Torah scroll back to its opening words. We will begin the Torah reading cycle again and begin our discussions (and debates) about its language and import.

According to Jewish tradition the Torah is perfect. If a sentence appears repetitive, a word seems curious, a letter seems out of place, the fault cannot be with the Torah, but instead with the interpreter. Each and every week we unroll the scroll and discover a new question. It may be last year’s question, but even if it is, it is different because we are different.

And so we begin again. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? If the Torah is without error and authored by the hand of God then why open with the second letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, rather than the first? The rabbis offer suggestions.

Rabbi Jonah responds (from the third century CE): Why was the world created with a bet? Just as the bet is closed at the sides but open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind. In other words speculation about what preceded creation is to be avoided, questions about what constitutes the heavens are unhelpful. Focus on the here and now. The mysteries of the heavens and what may or may not have existed before creation are matters that lead one astray.

Another rabbi answers: To teach you that there are two worlds. Bet has the numerical value of two and thus points to the rabbinic teaching that in addition to this world there exists the world to come: namely, heaven. Yes, Judaism believes in heaven. I recognize that many Jews do not believe in heaven, but rabbinic Judaism most certainly does.

The discussion and debate continues. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? Because it connotes blessing. The Hebrew word for blessing is baruch and begins with a bet. The word for curse, on the other hand, is arur and begins with an alef. If the world was created with an alef, others might ask, “How can the world endure seeing that it was created with the language of cursing?” Hence the Holy One responded, “I will create the world with the language of blessing in order that it will stand.” Although the world might sometimes appear cursed, Judaism insists, it is filled with blessing.

Given that they are rabbis, another comments. Why with a bet? Just as the bet has two projecting points, one pointing upward and the other backward, it prompts us to ask, “Who created you?” It intimates with its upward point, “God who is above me.” And we ask further, “What is God’s name?” And it points with its back point to the Lord. God’s name, Adon, begins with the alef. Every sermon concludes with God.

Rabbi Eleazar relates a story: For twenty-six generations the alef complained before the Holy One, pleading with God. The alef said, “Sovereign of the Universe! I am the first of the letters, yet You did not create Your world with me!” God answered: “The world and its fullness were created for the sake of the Torah alone. Tomorrow, when I come to reveal My Torah at Sinai I will begin My revelation with none other than you, “I (Anokhi) am the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20) With this letter the Ten Commandments are given and the world is righted.

Creation begins with the bet of blessings, but it is sustained by the alef of our actions.

The questions continue to be unrolled before us.

A teaching can stand on one letter.

And each and every year we peer behind this holy veil.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Jewish Rain Dance

On Sukkot we shake the lulav. We take branches of a date palm, willow and myrtle, hold them together with an etrog (basically, an oversized, bumpy lemon) and wave them in six directions: east, south, west, north, up and down. This is in fulfillment of the Torah’s command: “You shall take the product of hadar trees (etrog), branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees (myrtle) and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23)

Waving the lulav reminds us that God is everywhere and anywhere. To be honest it looks like a rain dance. This makes sense because Sukkot begins the rainy season in the land of Israel. We continue this tradition even though we live outside of the land. We even add the prayer for rain as we welcome the changing colors of fall. Many of our customs are tied to Israel. Even the holidays follow that land’s patterns rather than our own.

Still the Rabbis did not abandon these traditions. Instead they found meaning for their own lands and their own times. Rather than bringing rain, they taught that the lulav and etrog are metaphors. The four species represent four different types of people.

The etrog has good taste (good is a debatable point) and fragrance (it does smell wonderful). The etrog represents a person who is wise and does good deeds. The myrtle has good fragrance, but no taste. It symbolizes a person who does good deeds but lacks wisdom. The date palm has good taste but no smell. This represents a person who has wisdom but does no good deeds. And the willow has no taste and no smell. This symbolizes a person who lacks wisdom and does no good deeds.

I wonder why the rabbis associated taste with wisdom and smell with good deeds. To acquire wisdom you must sink your teeth into the learning. You must acquire the taste. Learning is akin to sitting down to a good meal. A good deed, on the other hand, can be carried on the winds like a beautiful fragrance. It can even reach beyond the person who stands before us and is begging for our assistance. The smell, and reach, of a good deed can travel from one end of the world to another.

And yet most important of all, a community is comprised of all kinds of people. Some are wise. Some do good deeds. Some do everything. And some do nothing. But what makes a community a community, or for that matter, a country a country, is that everyone must be held together.

You can only come to a recognition that God is everywhere and anywhere when everyone stands together and you hold everyone tight.

Can this bring the rains that nourish the earth? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it certainly can provide us with much needed nourishment.