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Rabbi's Corner

November 2020  On Kislev 5781

Dear Eitz Chaim,

When I was a teenager, in the evenings of October and November, I’d walk home from school to my house in the early dark, returning from soccer practice, a late seminar, or a theater production. My way home was lit by streetlamps and stars; the afternoons had given way to early nights, the clocks having done their annual, and always baffling, jump in time. I’d walk alone up my block and try to find Orion in the sky. For whatever celestial reason, Orion always seemed to perch at the head of my block, right over the trees of Prospect Park, my own neighborhood guardian.

Over the years I became quite attached. Whenever I’m somewhere new, I usually try to spot Orion in the sky – probably because it’s the only constellation I can easily recognize, but also because it gives me an instant feeling of home. There’s a delight in recognizing something as big as a star, and realizing that it’s followed you even to here, that makes the world seem a little bit smaller, a little bit homier, and just a little bit more manageable. “Oh, hello there, Orion,” I think to myself, “Why yes there you still are. It’s good to see you.”

On November 17th we’ll enter the month of KiSLev, כסלו, a month famous for the lights of the menorah, donuts, and Chanukah presents. And, wonderfully, the Septuagint in the books of Job, Isaiah, and Amos, identifies the Hebrew constellation of Orion as KeSiL, כסיל, the very same Hebrew root, k-s-l, revealing a powerful link between this upcoming month of kislev and my beloved sky hero.

When the book of Job talks of Orion, of kesil, it tells of God’s immensity and consistency. God asks Job, with some imaginable sass, “Can you untie Orion’s belt?” And, well, clearly, he can’t. But God can. We can’t put Orion in the sky any more than we can take him down. But Orion can remind us of a bigger context – a universe, a sense of time, and maybe a feeling of peace – far beyond whatever strangeness or new challenge faces us in the moment.

May this month be for each of us be a sort of coming home – recognizing the familiar, feeling belonging, and knowing our childhood stars remain high in the sky, exactly where they always been and exactly where they should be. 

Shabbat shalom!

Elizabeth

October 2020

Dear Eitz Chaim,

My sukkah fell down this morning.  

And I worked so hard to build it. I’ve never built a sukkah alone before, and the task was daunting. Fueled only by determination, I drove to Home Depot, braving the madness of its cavernous aisles, invented sukkah schematics on the fly, singlehandedly wrestled 8-foot-tall sheets of garden lattice into the space between the passenger and rear seats of my car, and toiled for the majority of the day attempting to zip tie my creation together as it slowly flopped over onto my head.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. It’s questionable if my sukkah was even ever halachic (!), since it fell down mid-chol ha’moed. But boy was it something. It was a strong show of belief and hope.

It’s hope -- like that feeling you have if you’re bowling, once the ball leaves your hands and you tighten your fists in anticipation and wait. All you can do is will it to work. 

Or the feeling I sometimes have while driving, I’m nervous to admit, and I have to squeeze my car through the narrows of a NYC street where a truck’s double parked and at some point, I just have to squint my eyes, inch the car forward, and hope for the best.

It’s that moment of: gosh I’ve done my very best, it’s out of my hands, let’s just hope the rest of it plays out OK. That’s how I felt as I admired my towering sukkah creation, festooned with decorations and cuttings from my mother’s garden. “This,” I promised to myself, “is good enough.”

And if the sukkah exists to remind us of or journey from Egypt through the desert, well then mine’s has GOT to be halakhic. Because all those Jews were wandering through the desert, fueled only by the squint-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best kind of hope. They couldn’t control the situation, and they couldn’t see the other side. God was with them, but they kept forgetting it. And you know what? Most (really, all but 2) of them didn’t make it. That’s right, their metaphorical sukkah fellow down. 

So maybe, building a sukkah that just might not survive the wind is the most honest sukkah you can make. This isn’t my psak halacha, but it is a hope for my own backyard, for myself, and for all of us at a time when it’s not clear if any of our failing plans will work out, when everything is in flux, and we hope that all will hold together just long enough.

Chag sameach as a I'm writing to you before simchat torah! And I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Warmly,

Elizabeth

August 2020

Dear Eitz Chaim,

I’m wishing you all a healthy and peaceful August and month of Av from Jerusalem.

As I write, it is about to be erev Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av. Some call this month Menachem Av, Hebrew for “comforting father”, perhaps to remind us of the divine’s deep capacity to hold and to comfort, a reminder we may crave in a time of destruction, change, and loss. 

Av marks the destruction of the temple, chorban beit ha-miqdash. The four haftarot we read leading up to Tisha b’Av, words of Jeremiah and Isaiah, are the unheeded sharp warnings of the prophets of the chorban.  The prophets are angry, panicking, warning. And then tragically their prophesies come true. The world turns upside down. 

And so, Av is the month in which we found ourselves staring down the fraying of an entire way of life we knew. We lost our old ways of making meaning, of counting time, of communal gathering; the structure in our lives was demolished.  This might feel familiar.  

Yet Av is also the month that gives us hope; it gives us somewhere new to go. It promises that the story doesn’t end with destruction. Because the temple was destroyed, but the people were not. Av is said to be the birth month of the messiah. And redemption begins in Av. The seven haftarot that take us from Tisha b’Av and into Rosh Hashanah tell us of the renewal, rebuilding, and resilience.

And then on the fifteenth of Av, we have Tu B’Av, the holiday of love. The Talmud describes it as a giant day of matchmaking, in which the youth of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards and fall in love. So, we make new beginnings on the smallest of scales first: creating relationships one by one. We connect, or reconnect, and we build up a new foundation for holiness that is in our praying together, learning together, singing together, no matter what the place. And, maybe, by going outside to dance wildly together, socially distant, in a field. 

I’m very much looking forward to meeting you all when I return to the United States later this month. And until then, may you find this Av some comfort, hope, and connection.

Warmly,

Elizabeth

Thu, August 11 2022 14 Av 5782