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247
09/25/2015 09:55 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
September 25, 2015

 

                Torah records what the Israelites did when they trekked through the wilderness. They lived in Sukkot, in temporary booths. Part of our observance of Sukkot is what Torah tells us to do, “You shall live in booth seven days.” But, the Book of Leviticus wasn’t written along the way as the Israelites made their trek. According to modern scholars, it was inscribed later, about the 5th century BCE, from a place where Jews settled into permanent homes. Why, then, does Torah record not just the story of the past, but also the obligation to relive it? Torah offers only this:

 

“In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”

 

                The Book of Leviticus is a priestly book. It is no wonder that the purpose of living in a booth is directly connected to serving God. But, centuries later such priestly associations were not enough to substantiate the building of a Sukkah, let alone living in one. In the 12th century, a Torah commentator by the name of Rashbam, and the grandson of the famous Biblical commentator, Rashi, expanded Torah teaching. Though far from a modern scholar, he also went beyond priestly functions and appealed to issues of moral living. He cited Deuteronomy (8:17), “Do not say in your heart, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Then Rashbam comments:

 

You should remember the Lord your God, as it is God who gives you strength to make progress. Therefore, the people leave their houses, which are full of everything good at the harvest season, and dwell in booths, as a reminder of those who had no possessions in the wilderness and no houses in which to live. It is for this reason, that God established the Festival of Sukkot, that the people should not be proud of their well-furnished houses.

 

                Rashbam built his lesson on this text from Deuteronomy, because it repeats and reports the lessons the Israelites will need after they have left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land. Presumably, it would be a time for settlement and not for wandering. Therefore, Deuteronomy also anticipated that once the Israelites were settled, they would begin to acquire wealth and creature comforts. They would have a home to return to each night, and safety behind permanent walls and doors. Jews in their new homes would be like kings in their castles who believed they were the source of their own success.

                Reflecting on his life and that of his fellow Jews in 12th century France, Rashbam conceded that a permanent home with a roof overhead and a bolt on the door was safer than a booth with an open roof and no door at all. Therefore, shaking our complacency and not just our lulav, by moving out of our safe houses and into the fragile booth would create instant recognition of our dependence on God.

                Rashbam’s lesson is important to us, but it might not be enough to persuade us out of our comfortable homes to live in a booth in September, in Houston. Nevertheless, we can still learn from Rashbam. When life is hard even after we have settled down, the relative comfort we come to know there can numb us against our faith in God’s overarching presence in our life. Some have said, “Life is good. Who needs God?” Others have said (and Deuteronomy anticipated), “Look what I have built with my own hands and power?” History has demonstrated that such numb faith can lead to disastrous failings due to arrogance and pride.

                Today, the Sukkah stands outside as a reminder of our ancestors’ precarious journey. Surely, it wasn’t the fragile Sukkah that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. It was God’s presence that accompanied them and helped them believe that their temporary booth would support them over many miles and many years. How much has really changed? Can we really accomplish our own journey by merely locking the door at night and rebuilding the roof after each hurricane season? Faith in God’s presence can still support us. If it were only about locking the door and setting the alarm, we wouldn’t also recite at night the Shema, or find comfort in the words, “Adonai li, v’lo eera,” God is with me; I will not be afraid. The Sukkah serves us as a reminder of the real Source of our relative wealth. Stepping out of our houses and lives of comfort into the Sukkah awakens us to God’s presence.

                This week, let’s shake our lulav and spend time in the Sukkah. Let’s eat a meal there and welcome friends as we have been taught to do. And, later, when we return to our homes on clean streets and wide avenues, let’s give thanks for all that we have done with all that God has given us.

                Chag Sameach (Happy Sukkot) and Shabbat Shalom

 

(Republished by request)


You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.



246
09/03/2015 12:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
September 4, 2015

 

Remember the time you packed up the car for a family vacation? When you arrived at your vacation destination you probably shouted, “We made it!” So, imagine how the Israelites reacted when they reached the Promised Land after a long journey on foot. Just about to enter the Land, what do you think they shouted? In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26), we learn what the Israelites said when the Promised Land came into view.

                Oddly, Torah doesn’t record immediately the Israelites’ shouts for joy; not even an end-zone-like shuffle on the other side of the Jordan. Rather, Torah records that their first instruction was to give thanks to God with offerings of their first fruits. They were instructed, “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage…you shall take some of the very first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land…put it in a basket…and go to the priest in charge and say to him, ‘I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to assign us.” Their second instruction was to recall the heritage of their ancestor, a fugitive Aramean, who went down to Egypt, and who, as a populous nation, was redeemed by God “by a mighty hand, an outstretched arm and awesome power.” And, only then, after giving thanks to God and acknowledging their past, were they instructed to celebrate, “You shall enjoy all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deuteronomy 26:11).

                The order of events is important. We learn from them that we reach our destinations by virtue of strengths within and beyond us. To reach any destination should prompt us to give thanks, and if not to God, then at least to the pilot, the driver or the captain. But, giving thanks to God is appropriate, too; for, by virtue of the laws of physics that keep the plane aloft, and the good fortune that enables us to arrive safely, some thanks are due. Only then should the joy of arriving be celebrated. It recalls pictures of immigrants to Israel bending low to the ground and kissing the earth. They expressed their gratitude to be in the Holy Land before they ever took another step.

                We arrive at many places that deserve our gratitude, too. We arrive at new insights, new loves, renewed healing and fresh courage. These are all reasons to feel grateful for the process that delivered us. Torah urges us to see them as gifts, and gifts are meant to be shared with others who are still seeking their own. A donation in honor or memory of a loved one to a worthwhile organization, for example, has been a longstanding Jewish custom.

                Take a moment and ask yourself, how far have I come this past year? What are the fruits of my success? Who from my past mentored or enabled me to succeed? How can I give thanks to God and share my good fortune with others? And, finally, have I celebrated appropriately? Even if we only reached Shabbat, it’s a destination that deserves our thanks for the privilege of reflection, gratitude and peace.



You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.

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