Each of the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, has a nickname describing a key feature of the holiday. Pesaḥ is Z'man Ḥeruteinu, the time of our freedom. Shavuot is Z'man Matan Torateinu , the time of the giving of our Torah. Sukkot is Z'man Simḥateinu, the time of our joy.
Now, I absolutely love Sukkot - if I had to pick a favorite holiday, it would be Sukkot hands down. I love the smells, from the bright fragrance of the etrog, to the distinctive aroma of freshly cut pine branches (my shul growing up used pine as skhakh and that scent always transports me), to the slightly sweet odor of a lulav past its prime. I love the feeling in the air as the season changes firmly to fall. I enjoy being outdoors, eating long, aimless meals in the sukkah with friends. Sukkot calls up for me so many special memories, memories I savor coming back to year after year, even as I make new ones to accompany them.
But getting to Sukkot....that part's not so easy, not something I savor. Making it through the High Holidays is a huge amount of work (rewarding and meaningful, but emotionally and physically taxing nonetheless). And just when I'm ready to take a few days of rest to regain my energy, there it is. After a paltry four days, it's time for another holiday. And a holiday with a massive amount of preparation and physical labor involved. It's a little bit dizzying. Where's the joy?
Certainly, given what I just said about how much I love the holiday itself, there's joy in celebrating the holiday once it has arrived, at least for me and I hope for you. This year, however, I've been challenging myself to find joy in the preparations as well, in these four jam-packed and slightly stressful days.
I'm writing this message on Wednesday night, after having spent the evening building two different sukkot - our Chevrei Tzedek sukkah and my own sukkah at home (tremendous gratitude to Jeanne and Mali for jumping in and helping me get my sukkah up!). Working to get those sukkot built was absolutely where I found my joy today. The joy of being together with members of our community to help get our shul ready to celebrate. The joy of witnessing folks reminiscing about Sukkot celebrations past and previous sukkah-building experiences. The joy of listening to good music to make the work more pleasant. The joy of seeing a sukkah (2 sukkot!) go from being a pile of poles on the ground to being a dwelling place for us and for God's presence.
And while I still don't know when I'm going to get the grocery shopping done or the food cooked, I do know that the joy I found this evening will help keep me afloat until I figure the rest of it out.
Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ!
I overheard a snippet of a conversation today, a teenage child telling his mother about the use of the phrase "sorry, not sorry." I only overheard a tiny bit of their conversation, as I was just passing by, but just that little bit intrigued me. Certainly, at this time of year, we in the Jewish community are preoccupied with apologizing. So I was delighted to hear a teenager engaging with his parent about the lack of sincere apology implicit in this popular phrase and the problematic nature of that.
The truth is, this phrase is everywhere - and it seems that few people are concerned about its lack of sincere apology. Full disclosure: I've heard the phrase a lot and even used it a few times in the past.
There's a great song by Demi Lovato, called "Sorry Not Sorry," which was really popular when it came out, that is about the singer's refusal to be apologetic in the face of harsh criticism. It's a power anthem of self-validation. Hard to criticize that drive to stay strong and true to oneself when confronted with mean-spirited words of critique.
But the more common use of the phrase is just what it sounds like - someone couching their refusal to apologize for something in words that, at least at first, sound like an apology. And when I say common, I mean extremely common. A quick search on Facebook for #sorrynotsorry yielded 8.5 million posts. A search for the phrase without the hashtag led to listings for more groups than I could count with some version of "Sorry Not Sorry" in their group name.
Much ink has been spilled, especially in feminist spaces, about the phenomenon of over-apologizing, of robbing ourselves of our strength and confidence when interacting with others. There's even an extension for the Google Chrome browser called Just Not Sorry, which "warns you when you write emails using words which undermine your message."
But with the case of "sorry, not sorry" the issue is under-apologizing, or stridently refusing to apologize for something that may actually be worthy of our contrition. Yes, it's important not to diminish our own voices and to be aware of the potentially damaging power dynamics that over-apologizing reinforces. Full stop.
And also, it is crucially important to cultivate the skills necessary to apologize with sincerity when it is called for - not only so that we can seek repair with those we've harmed, but also so that we can develop our awareness of our own faults and mistakes. When we never truly apologize, we continuously confirm our own rightness. This deadens our sensitivity to the impact of our actions on others and keeps us in what may be a hurtful holding pattern.
The phenomenon of "sorry, not sorry" reminds me of a passage from the Mishnah about the work of Teshuvah that's required for Yom Kippur. Mishnah Yoma 8:9 teaches: With regard to one who says: I will sin and then I will repent, I will sin and I will repent, Heaven does not provide him the opportunity to repent, and he will remain a sinner all his days. With regard to one who says: I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for my sins, Yom Kippur does not atone for his sins.
This same mishnah reminds us that the rituals of Yom Kippur help us atone for sins between ourselves and God, areas of our religious or ritual life where we have not lived up to expectations. In order to effect atonement for offenses against other people, we must apologize. With our religious misdeeds, repenting with the intention of sinning again is not true repentance. The same holds with our relationships with other people. "Sorry, not sorry" just doesn't cut it. Difficult though it sometimes is to find the right words and offer those we've hurt a sincere apology, that is exactly what we must do - for Yom Kippur and year-round.
I wish you all a k'tivah vahatimah tovah - may we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!
On Rosh Hashanah, we have a strong tradition to embrace and celebrate newness. In my own home, the rush to get new clothes and haircuts has been a focus of this past week, along with all of the other things you might imagine a rabbi doing to get ready for the High Holidays. Around our holiday tables, many of us will eat a new fruit - adding a new experience to mark the new year.
These new things we do in honor of Rosh Hashanah are a special part of our celebrations. And even though they are incredibly embodied and evocative experiences, they are in some ways also external to our deepest selves. A new outfit or new food can give expression to or even spark a real change in who we are, but they are more likely to be things we simply do for this occasion and this occasion only. The novelty wears off. The new outfit winds up in the hamper, the haircut grows out, the new fruit becomes a part of the regular menu rotation.
In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, we strive to find a different kind of newness - not newness in what we wear or eat, but newness in who we are. We aim to try out new and different ways to be with each other, and with ourselves. We work to improve, to grow, to deepen our relationships.
This process is one best done together. While each of us must do our own individual work to find the newness within ourselves, the power of doing so in community with each other keeps us accountable and brings us inspiration.
With that in mind, I have a crowdsourcing request:
Please share with me the ways you're working to find new dimensions of yourselves this coming year. Are there new experiences you're looking forward to? New skills you're planning to develop? New challenges to contend with? New relationships to nurture? New areas of growth you're tending to?
On erev Yom Kippur, I hope to share some thoughts about where we - as a collective and as individuals - are heading this coming year, and I would love to be able to build upon your wisdom and insight as we envision the beautiful possibilities of the new year together.
Please send me a message between now and next Friday (9/22), letting me know what new things and opportunities you're pursuing this coming year. Please also let me know if it's okay to share your words with our community (no names will be shared). I look forward to hearing from you and to celebrating all of the newness in this coming year.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
Our double reading this week of Parashiyot Nitzavim and Vayelekh is full of phrases and verses that we tend to recognize more from their uses in other contexts than from their original places in the Torah. Gems from this week's reading appear in often-quoted midrashim, stories from the Talmud, and are all over the siddur and mahzor.
As the parashah reminds us several times of the importance of following God's Torah - practically begging the people to follow the right path - it offers what seems like an appeal to logic. After all, לא בשמים היא, the Torah does not reside in Heaven. (Deut. 30:12) It's within reach. No one needs to ascend to Heaven to retrieve it so that we can learn it and follow it. It's right here for us, in our mouths and in our hearts.
Famously, this verse is read quite against its original context in a powerful story from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b). The short version:
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Yehoshua are arguing about a particular issue of Jewish law. Rabbi Yehoshua represents the majority and yet, Rabbi Eliezer refuses to concede his point. He even calls upon Heaven to justify his side of things, which it does. Eventually, Rabbi Yehoshua declares victory, citing this verse, which is used as a prooftext for majority rule. Now that the Torah is not in Heaven, i.e. has been given to us, the only opinion that matters on how to follow it is a human opinion. Rabbi Yehoshua tells Heaven to stay in its lane.
As an aside in the story, Elijah the Prophet appears, recalling that in that moment, when Rabbi Yehoshua told God to butt out, God laughed in delight.
This point is often where people stop in their retelling of this Talmudic story. But no good Talmudic story has such a happy ending. The story continues that Rabbi Eliezer's colleagues destroy his reputation and excommunicate him for his refusal to concede the rule of the majority. In his despair and anger, he prays for the death of the head of the community, Rabban Gamliel. And Rabban Gamliel, in fact, dies. The lesson the Talmud draws from this tragic end is about the power of our words to do harm and the compassion with which God sees people who have been wronged in this way.
Over the High Holidays, which will begin next Friday night, you'll hear me talk a lot about חשבון הנפש, Heshbon Hanefesh, the personal account we're each meant to take of ourselves in preparation for beginning a new year.
I can't read our Parashah without thinking about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Yehoshua. Reading it this week, it has me considering the importance of the words we use with each other. When have my words caused someone else harm? When have they been used to lift others up? How will God look at me for the way I've used my words?
I invite you to ask yourselves the same kinds of questions as we take an account of ourselves and prepare to enter a new year. Choosing our words intentionally, doing the work it takes to use words that convey care and kindness, as our Parashah says, is not in Heaven. It's in our mouths and our hearts to make a reality.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Marci Jacobs