Sukkah Guests

Tonight we begin the Festival of Sukkot, our Fall Harvest Extravaganza!  In our day and time this is a most overlooked by liberal Jews.  With so much emphasis on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the rest of the High Holy Days- Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, Simchat Torah are often passed by.  In the ancient days this festival was known as THE FESTIVAL.  Even though Passover and Shavuot are also Festivals, Sukkot was widely celebrated and very important.

I particularly love Sukkot in contrast with Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur is introspective and a fast day.  Sukkot is a week of welcoming everyone to your table for feasting. It is the ultimate dinner party holiday.  Not Passover but Sukkot is a week of entertaining in the Sukkah, welcoming family and friends and even our ancestors through the ancient ceremony of Ushpizin.

Ushpizin is an Aramaic word for guests.  We welcome not only real guests into the hospitality of our Sukkah but ancient guests. Traditionally each of the days of Sukkot we welcome the soul of a different ancestor beginning on the first night with Abraham, second night, Isaac, third night Jacob, fourth night Moses,  fifth night Aaron, sixth night Joseph, and seventh night King David!  Each of these seven leaders of our people are present each night but one leader is highlighted. According to the Zohar, Emor 103a, their souls  actually leave Gan Eden to partake in the Divine light of the earthly Sukkot.

This welcoming of the Ushpizin is a very mystical custom. Several Jewish mystical texts explain that each of the seven Ushpizin correspond to a fundamental spiritual pathway (sefirah) through which the world is metaphysically nourished and perfected (Derech Hashem 3:2:5, Zohar Chadash, Toldot 26c; cf. Zohar 2:256a).

Abraham represents love and kindness (Chesed); Isaac represents restraint and personal strength (Gevurah). Jacob represents beauty and truth (Tifferet). Moses represents eternality and dominance through Torah (Netzach)  Aaron represents empathy and receptivity to divine splendor (Hod)Joseph represents holiness and the spiritual foundation (Yesod) David represents the establishment of the kingdom of Heaven on Earth (Malchut).

In the period of counting the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, each week is dedicated to one of these same sefirot but each characteristic of the Tree of Life appears in every week.  Just as each guest representing one of the sefirot is welcomed into the sukkah on a particular day as the leader but all are present every day!

In our day and time it is also customary to welcome Ushpiziot , women leaders of our people including, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel &Leah, Miriam, Hulda, Devorah and Esther.

Come into the Sukkah at Temple this week. Bring you lunch during the day, or one of the many events in the Sukkah this week.  Your ancestors await you!




The Power of our Ancestors

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

This past summer I had one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in Israel that I ever had.  I visited the Cave of Machpela, the tomb of our ancestors in the ancient city of Hebron. I prayed before the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews according to our tradition who accepted our covenant with God that I still observe today. I stood before the tomb Abraham and Sarah and imagined this family more than 3500 years ago.  But also buried there are Isaac and Jacob, Rebekkah and Leah.  Rachel is buried outside of Bethlehem.


The building over the tombs is both a synagogue and a mosque.  For centuries Jews were allowed no entrance to the tomb.  They could only approach on seven steps outside the building. But with the 1967, Six Day War, Jews were allowed to enter the Tombs!


Today the building is divided. Part of it is a mosque and part a synagogue.  Jews cannot go into the area of the mosque except on ten days a year.  The Tomb of Isaac is in the area of the mosque.


It is relevant to this week’s Torah portion because it is here in Chapter 23 that Abraham buys the cave and the field adjacent for a burial ground for Sarah who has just died.  The Torah elaborates on a detailed transaction for the purchase of this cave between Abraham and his neighbor, Ephron the Hittite.  It is clear from the text that this was no gift but the land was purchased fair and square.


This purchase of the cave and the field make it one of the oldest Jewish holy sites.

And believe me standing there before the tombs you can feel the history and legacy of our people all at once.  It is important to remember the force of your history and your place in the chain of the Jewish people.  Being at the Tomb of the Patriarchs one can get a sense of it.

In today’s world with so much change around us it is hard to find those lasting connections.  Even the days after the election, our country is still so divided that for some people it is hard to relate to those who think differently than us whether we are on the right or left or the center!

But as the Jewish people we have a bond that ought to rise above the political to the holy, sacred ground of our shared covenant.  That covenant embodies the Ten Commandments and the whole of Jewish learning that is our inheritance no matter what.

Let us pray that in the days and weeks ahead that the values embodied in our tradition begun with Abraham and Sarah-to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the way we begin to heal the divide.


A Eulogy for Sarah-Parshat Chayei Sarah

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:28

This week’s Torah portion, although named the life of Sarah opens with news of her death and the purchase of her burial place in the Cave of Machpelah which you can still visit in Hebron, Israel.

Today let us remember our great Mother –Sarah who was first of the four Matriarchs of Sarah.


In Jewish tradition at a funeral we give a hesped.  This corresponds to a eulogy where we share memories, stories and try to reflect on the life of the individual.  However there is a difference between a hesped and a eulogy.  Eulogy comes from the root word for praise and so a eulogy is to praise the life of the deceased.  In Jewish tradition a hesped , really means “tell it like it was”.  So praise is not the major component of our thoughts and remembrances of the deceased.


I imagine that if we were to be at Sarah’s funeral we might hear the following hesped of Sarah.


Dear friends and family we have come today to lay to rest the body of Sarah here in Hebron. Sarah was 127 years old. Her birthday was just a few months ago.  And even though her years were advanced she was sharp as a tack and still lived a full life. She recently came here to Hebron having left her tent in Beershevah.  So her death came as a tragic and sudden shock to us all.  She was the First wife of Abraham, mother of Ishmael and Isaac, blessed by God.  And our hearts go out to all of the family.


Sarah was born in Ur and went to Haran where she grew up with you Abraham.  She was your niece and you married and she followed your dreams-to resettle in Cannan. She was a loyal wife and ran your household with cheer.
Sarah was a strong woman both physically and spiritually.  She was a loyal wife to Abraham. So much so when she knew she couldn’t have children of her own she gave Abraham Hagar her servant so they could have a surrogate mother for their child.  Barrenness didn’t stop Sarah. She was always involved in the family business together bringing more and more people into the fold.


One of the great moments in Sarah’s life was when God changed her name. God had previously done so with her husband whom she first knew as Abram but when he made the solemn commitment to the covenant God proposed, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham.  Sarai’s name was subsequently changed to Sarah upon the promise of her carrying a child.  Both included in this new covenant.


Sarah had a great sense of humor and a hearty laugh.  She kept the whole family on their toes with her cynic’s eye and her spirit of welcome.  She was a good cook.   And she loved to entertain. Often she would host the travelers who stopped by the tent. Abraham you called out to Sarah, “Let us welcome these strangers with cakes and provide water to wash their tired and dusty feet.” And Sarah would rush to make them feel at home. She was a real balabusta!


Once when three special travelers came on their journey they brought unbelievable news they revealed that Sarah would become pregnant at an advanced age.  Sarah wasn’t exactly in the main welcome tent but overheard the men’s conversation.  With her usual cynic’s edge she laughed so heartily that the whole encampment stopped to find out what was going on!  But lo and behold, when the travelers returned a year later Sarah had given birth to her own child, she gave birth at the age of 90 and in honor of that laughter named him Isaac!


She was so blessed that miracles occurred for her.


Isaac you were the apple of her eye.  And she tried to protect you from.  But Sarah’s jealous side came out and sadly she ordered you Abraham to remove your first child Ishmael and his birth mother, Hagar from the household.  I know that this affected the whole family.  I don’t know if Sarah regretted her actions.  But I know one of the reasons she came to Hebron was because she thought you had retaliated by taking Isaac away on your recent trip to Mt. Moriah without telling her.


I know she began to think that sending Ishmael and Hagar out into the wilderness was wrong. She saw how it broke your heart. And it broke her heart. But following God’s call to nearly sacrifice your birth child with her, Isaac brought her great sadness and grief. And it filled her with remorse for what she had done. She felt as if you willing were taking revenge upon her.  Sarah came here to search for you and Isaac.  She came to find Hagar and Ishmael and ask forgiveness. But the news of Isaac’s near sacrifice I think shocked her to death.  She realized how she and her family had been shattered. And it grieved her greatly.


And now we grieve and mourn for her.  We give thanks for her courage to travel to the Promised Land to step into unknown cultures and situations.  We give thanks for her fierceness and following God’s call.  We give thanks for her commitment to hospitality of the strangers. We give thanks for her ability to forgive and to seek forgiveness.  She was truly a pioneer. May her memory live for a blessing.




Covenantal Journey

Parshat Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1 – 17:27


This week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha begins the journey of our ancestors Sarah and Abraham toward their encounter with the one God.  It is this week that we read about the initial covenant with God and the nascent story of the Jewish people.   We read of their name changes, Sarai to Sarah and Abram to Abraham and the promise of a child born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age.  Ishmael is already their child, Abraham by birth, Sarah by adoption. But in this covenantal promise, which I might add that Abraham scoffs at and laughs about, a child’s birth to Sarah is foretold.   God blesses Ishmael but the covenant according to this week’s portion will be continued through Isaac.

The sign of the covenant is made by circumcising the boys and men of Abraham’s household.  Further any boy at 8 days will be circumcised to be brought into the community.  This is an affirmation of life.  It dedicates the reproductive organ of the men not to wanton sex but to a holy covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham.  This is a radical idea.  The whole being, the whole body and fertility is connected to this special and unique religious covenant with one God.  There isn’t a separate god or goddess of fertility or a separate god or goddess of blessing.  But Abraham’s God-is a shield to Abraham and his family.

This is a point that the anti-circumcision people want to ignore. They base their assumptions about what circumcision is and isn’t on the idea that it is a medical procedure or “beauty” procedure.  For Jews and for Muslims nothing could be further from the truth.  Circumcision is a religious moment in the life of a male child; a moment to seek the Holy One’s blessing and a moment to dedicate that child to the covenantal promise extended to Abraham and his descendants.

If you don’t want to circumcise your child then don’t.  But don’t try to make laws which are anti-Semitic and Isalamaphobic which forbid circumcision of male children.  This is a religious and sacred moment. For Jews it enters our male babies into a rich historical and familial and sacred tradition. And for those that claim it is doing “harm” or hurting the infant, they haven’t seen modern circumcision or brit milah.

Finally the comparison with what is called women’s circumcision is a completely false analogy.  For women this is genital mutilation because they actually cut out the clitoris completely.  Circumcision doesn’t remove the penis. Just the foreskin.  So let’s stop making the comparison now.

Today we still welcome our male babies at eight days with a Brit Milah ceremony which includes the circumcision and naming.  And we also welcome our daughters at eight days with a Brit Banot ceremony which includes rituals like feet washing, candle lighting and a naming. These ceremonies acknowledge and celebrate the birth of a child into the covenant of Judaism and their families.

This week’s Torah portion is ancient indeed and yet at each Brit Milah  and Brit Banot ceremony-we pray that each baby will grow towards a life filled with Torah, a sacred relationship and good deeds.  Ken Yicanes (Ticanes) L’Torah, L’chupah u’lamaasim Tovim.    We hope that each child can grow to fulfill this ancient promise!

The San Francisco bris ban

In San Francisco the Anti-Semites are at work.  They have collected enough signatures to place an anti-circumcision initiative on the fall ballot in San Francisco county. It would be a crime to perform a circumcision on a minor child. This would involve jail time and a minimum $1000 fine.

The group that is sponsoring this ballot initiative likens male circumcision to female circumcision. But they are not the same at all. Further this ballot initiative is an attack on Jewish ritual practice.  One only has to look at the political campaign material that has been produced featuring the Aryan blond looking superhero and the sinsiter Jewish looking Mohel or ritual circumcisor.  Every caricature of Jews is present in the graphic cartoons produced by those who support the measure.

Jews have practiced this ancient ritual not for health reasons but for ritual and spiritual reasons. We dedicate our son’s as did Abraham, the founder of Judaism to the covenantal promise we have with God.  We read about it first in Genesis 17:10 and then later on in Leviticus.  This ceremony is performed on the eighth day of life.  It just so happens that many of the brain synapses that send pain messages are not in full force yet in an infant.  Further study after study shows that HIV/AIDS is not transferred in heterosexual relationships at such a high rate when the male is circumcised. Also the risk of ovarian cancer is reduced in women whose male partners are cicumcised.

I hope you San Francisco voters will see this measure for what it is: a violation of the first amendment of the Constitution to the full practice of religion.  And it is an affront to Jews and to Muslims who practice this ancient rite as well.

In a city known for its openness, known for it freedom, it seems sadly ironic that this is what they wish to control.   But then again, from a Jewish perspective one of the reasons we circumcise and dedicate the penis to God’s covenant is in order to sanctify the procreative organ and to make the sex act for men a holy act, rather than a wanton lust -filled unspiritual experience.

I hope all who vote there, in the City by the Bay will vote against this measure.


I have had the good fortune to have a tangerine tree nearby that has been bountiful with its tangerines.  Overflowing actually.  I have been feeding it over the last couple of months and now the tangerines are amazingly sweet and I have been able to share them with lots of folks!

It is different to have a special relationship to a tree.  One  gives so freely of itself.

Jewish tradition is filled with trees.  They are so important to the core of beliefs.  The Torah is compared to a tree–the tree of life.    But our story in the Torah begins in the Garden of Eden centered around not just the tree of life but the tree of knowledge of good and evil!

Abraham our founder lived in the oak grove of Mamre.   The founder of Judaism understood the importance of trees to our well being.

The Kabbalist built their system of sephirot as leaves on the Tree of Life.

So this tangerine tree has re-awakened me to the importance of trees.  And it isn’t even Tu B’shvat!

So hug a tree. Give thanks for the oxygen they produce and fruits or nuts.  I know I have learned a lot in relationship to this tree.