How A Communal Celebration Reminds Us of the Dangers of Loneliness

This post originally appeared on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

One of the fastest growing epidemics to affect our individual emotional and physical health is loneliness.

Much has been written about loneliness recently, and especially how it can have deleterious effects on our health similar to smoking and even moreso than obesity. Loneliness can lead to heart disease, anxiety, depression and a host of other clinical diagnoses. Loneliness is found among the young and old, partnered and single, regardless of gender. And while we may connect loneliness to situations of illness or grief, loneliness can be found among any number of life situations.

And loneliness is less about being isolated—even people who are around a lot of people all the time or are active on social media can feel lonely. Loneliness comes when one does not have deep and meaningful relationships that allow for the development of close bonds and open and honest engagements.

But we don’t need studies to tell us this, Jewish tradition teaches us this as well.

Later this week on our Jewish calendar we mark the festival of Shemini Atzeret (literally, “the eighth day of assembly”). The reference to the holiday in the Torah is vague, indicating that it is both the last day of Sukkot and a separate holiday all together. Certain practices developed around Shemini Atzeret to set it apart from Sukkot: a prayer for rain was added to the liturgy, the use of the ritual items associated with Sukkot—the lulav and Etrog and the sukkah—are put aside. In later times, the newer festival of Simchat Torah—in which we celebrate the ending and beginning of our annual Torah reading cycle—was appended onto Shemini Atzeret.

Yet the original reason for the holiday is unclear. In Leviticus 23:36 we read, “On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion (atzeret) and bring an offering by fire to God, it is a solemn gathering, you shall not work at your occupations.” But why a separate festival at the end of Sukkot? Rashi, the medieval French commentator, offers an explanation on this verse:

The word atzeret is derived from the root “to hold back” and suggests: I, God, keep you back with Me one day more. It is similar to the case of a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to take their departure he said, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!”

The commentary suggests that the holiday was instituted as a way for God to say to the Israelites that after all this time spent together, through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot, God doesn’t want it to end. God doesn’t want the physical, spiritual and emotional connection to the Israelites to be severed.

In other words, God gets lonely too.

Loneliness is a part of the human condition. And taken to extremes, it can be very harmful to our well-being. Shemini Azteret can be understood as a day on the Jewish calendar to remind us of this fact. But rather than simply accept it, we commit to do what we can do to make ourselves and others feel less lonely—to open up our homes and our hearts, to forge meaningful connections, to actively listen and empathize, and to reach out and draw close.

Wind and Rain, Resilience and Abundance

This post originally was posted to the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning.

Earlier this week in the Pacific Northwest we waited for a storm that wasn’t.

A big storm of heavy rain and strong wind was predicted to hit Washington State, the remnants of a typhoon in the Pacific. While coastlines had increased activity, including a rare tornado hitting the Oregon Coast, further inland the result was underwhelming. And while some people lost power and a few trees came down, the storm was not as devastating as originally predicted.

The storm was supposed to come the day before Sukkot, the fall harvest festival in which we mark the turning of the season and the ancient story of our spiritual ancestors who, after leaving Egyptian slavery, wandered in the desert for 40 years. One of the main observances is the building of a sukkah, a temporary structure decorated with natural elements in which we “dwell” over the course of the week.

The sukkah is a symbol of vulnerability: a shelter that ultimately does not offer complete protection. It is susceptible to the elements; the roof made of natural materials is meant to be slightly open in order for us to see sunlight during the day and the stars at night. (It was ironic to be thinking about how this week the elements themselves might interfere with the construction of the Sukkah.) The sukkah is fragile, and when we sit in the sukkah we are, while covered, still exposed.

In anticipation of the storm and its increased wind and rain just prior to the holiday, I thought of another, less obvious Sukkot observance. During Sukkot we make a change in our liturgy, more specifically to the Amidah, the standing silent prayer. During the summer months—from Passover to Sukkot—we acknowledge God as the one who brings “down the dew” (“morid hatal”). On Sukkot we switch to acknowledging God as the one who “causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” (“mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem”) and will continue to recite this until Passover.

The change in the liturgy is an acknowledgement of the change in weather that comes with the onset of fall. At the same time it is a petition, that we need the wind and the rain over the fall and winter in order to have a successful season of growth and harvest in the spring and summer.

We can understand the prayers for rain. Rain is an ancient symbol of abundance shared by many cultures and traditions. We know that we need water to grow plants and food, we know how devastating a drought can be. The Torah time and time again acknowledges the blessing that is rain, and how timely rain is a symbol of reward. As we make our way towards fall and winter, the time when nature goes dormant and light decreases, it is only fitting that we both acknowledge the blessings of abundance that enrich our lives and offer hope for continued blessings of abundance.

What about wind? A story I heard in a yoga class recently opened my eyes and heart to the power of wind:

Biosphere 2 was an experiment in Arizona in the early 1990s to recreate, indoors, Earth’s different ecological systems. Scientists then lived in Biosphere to learn about human adaption and sustainability within a self-contained environment for possible application to space exploration as well as a general understanding about human interaction with the environment.

One of the challenges (failures?) of the experiment was that the trees within Biosphere would grow too fast and would end up toppling over before they reached maturity. Scientists discovered that the complete absence of wind in Biosphere was the cause; trees need the exposure to wind in order to develop “stress wood” or “reaction wood” that allows them to grow stronger and more stable. It is in exposure to wind that trees are able to develop the resilience they need to fully thrive.

My yoga instructor noted how it is not the absence of stress and pressure that make us strong, it is the stress and pressure themselves that makes us strong. Wind, therefore, is the symbol for resilience. When we pray for wind we are praying for the resilience to grow strong in the face of difficult conditions.

This Sukkot prayer, which we will continue to recite for the next six months—“who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”—is a prayer for resilience and abundance. It is exactly these that we seek when we dwell in the fragile sukkah and recognize our vulnerabilities.

The Gift of Another Holiday

I love the way we end Yom Kippur at Temple Beth Hatfiloh. After the heightened spiritual intensity of the day, the physical strain from fasting (and lots of standing), the emotional work we are called upon to do, culminating in the  solemnity of the final shofar blast, we just unwind, relax, loosen up, and sing.

The lights go off, the havdalah candle is lit and we first sing some songs before marking the transition from Yom Kippur to the rest of the week/year with the havdalah blessings. And then, of course, we break the fast together to continue the celebration.

And that is what it feels like–a celebration. We made it through the day, and it feels like a relief. But we made it through together, and that is worth celebrating, too: our ability to be present for one another, to be in community with one another, to be in relationship with one another.

And just as Yom Kippur winds down, we pick up again with the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, which begins Sunday night. Thinking of the calendar it sometimes seems so odd that there are so many holidays placed so close together. And Sukkot can be seen as both a part of and separate from the High Holidays.

It is of course a separate festival with its own independent themes. We recall the ancient story of the wanderings in the desert as our ancestors traveled from slavery to freedom. We build sukkot–temporary structures–to experience this idea of transience, impermanence and transition. And it is a festival of the fall, and so we take up the lulav and etrog–a cluster of four types of plants–to renew our connection to nature, our dependence on our natural world and our obligation to care for it.

But at the same time, Sukkot is connected to the High Holidays. Sukkot is traditionally called zman simchateynu–“the time of our rejoicing.” This is the continuation of the celebratory feeling we noted at the end of Yom Kippur. Our tradition in an sense codifies that feeling. After the intensity of Yom Kippur, we need to just relax, enjoy nature and celebrate in a new way the renewal of life. Sukkot serves that function.

For we can recognize the truth in this: after challenging ourselves and feeling challenged, it is good to rejoice. Both in the fact of having made it through the challenge, and in the fact of being challenged in the first place, for it is in these instances that we learn and grow. And the opportunity to learn and grow is a gift.

Chag sameach!

Downtown Crime Report: Our Etrog Was Stolen

Someone stole the etrog from our congregational sukkah.


On Wednesday afternoon I left a lulav and etrog, along with an information and how to sheet, in the Temple Beth Hatfiloh sukkah so that anyone who wished to perform the ritual of waving the lulav and etrog could. I peeked in Thursday morning and interestingly the etrog was gone. The lulav was still there.

I poked around the sukkah and didn’t find any trace of it. I did find some cigarette butts, food in a plastic bag, various other items of trash and a hypodermic needle.

This was depressing, also too because it followed on the heels of a theft at our own house. Yohanna’s car was prowled the night before, with a variety of items stolen: my guitar, a car organizer full of papers and miscellany, and a school bag with algebra book.

Through the great power of social media we have been able to connect with our neighbors and alert them, and also learn about the trend of crime spreading over our neighborhood. And we were even able to recover some of the stuff: the organizer, bag and math book were tossed into a neighbors’s yard. What wasn’t recovered (yet, hopefully), in addition to the guitar, was Yohanna’s beloved Rabbi’s Manual, which belonged to late father.

It is these two pieces, the Rabbi’s Manual and the etrog from the Temple, which hurt the most. I’m assuming people were looking for stuff to take and sell to then use to buy drugs or some such. But to take objects which clearly have no monetary or resale value means that someone took these things on a whim, or to deliberately hurt someone, or as a joke. Stealing objects of value is a crime, but at least a utilitarian crime. Stealing these other objects does nothing more than cause pain to another person.

There is a tradition which connects the four parts of the lulav and etrog with parts of the body. The etrog is equated with the heart. With the missing etrog, a bit of my heart is missing this Sukkot. The temporary nature of the Sukkah as shelter is meant to remind us of the fragility of life. This year it also reminds me of the fragility of our interpersonal relations. Regardless of our social standing or status, we have the power to heal and the power to hurt. And recently I have been at the receiving end of the latter.

10 Ways to Celebrate Sukkot/Simchat Torah

Our busy month of holidays continues. Sukkot begins Wednesday at sundown, ending with Simchat Torah next Thursday night. Here are some ways to celebrate!

What to do with an etrog after the holiday? Make etrog vodka of course. This is last year's batch, ready to drink this week!
What to do with an etrog after the holiday? Make etrog vodka of course. This is last year’s batch, ready to drink this week!

Dwell in the Sukkah: Building and dwelling in a sukkah is one of the traditional mitzvot (sacred obligations) associated with the holiday; we build a temporary structure to remember both the wanderings in the desert and to connect us closer to nature. It is to be sturdy enough to stand, but not permanent, and the roof is to be made of natural materials and is supposed to let in the elements. “Dwelling” is a relative term: some just eat meals in the sukkah, some sleep out in it. If you don’t have your own sukkah, that’s fine—come on down to the Temple Beth Hatfiloh sukkah with your lunch (or dinner, or breakfast, or snack) and make a picnic. It’s open all holiday!

Wave the Lulav: The other traditional mitzvah associated with Sukkot is the waving of the lulav and etrog, a collection of four different species of plant: willow, myrtle, palm and citron. These four plants are meant to represent all plants found in nature, and when we pick them up we are mindful of our connection to nature and our dependence on it. We ritually wave them in all directions acknowledging that we are surrounded by the divine and the power of nature. The four plants also symbolically represent all of humanity, and so we pray for the unity of all life. There will be a lulav and etrog (and directions as to how to fulfill the act) in the TBH sukkah, so come on down and give it a wave.

Look at the Moon: The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and Sukkot (and Passover in the spring) falls on the full moon. The full moon gives the greatest light, and it is fitting for a harvest holiday to maximize the light. If the sky is clear, look at the moon. Taking a moment to look at the full moon is another way to connect with the cycles of time and the seasons. And this year, a lunar eclipse on Sukkot will create a “blood moon.”

Enjoy the Harvest: Sukkot is the fall harvest festival, so during the holiday take a particular interest in the bounty of fall. Whether it comes from your garden, or the farmers market, or somewhere else, enjoy some fall fruits and vegetables. Make some seasonal foods. In my family Sukkot is when we make our annual visit the pumpkin patch to run in the hay maze and pick out our pumpkins for carving and seed roasting.

Be Happy: Sukkot is called zman simchateynu, the time of our celebration. Why this particular designation? Sukkot follows right on the heels of Yom Kippur, just five days later. On Yom Kippur we fast, we look inward, we atone for our sins—it is both physically and spiritually taxing. It would be hard to just re-enter our regular lives. Aside from being a holiday in its own right, Sukkot thus serves a “buffer” between the High Holidays and the rest of the year. And also reminds us that while life can be difficult, we also need to take the time to simply celebrate, rejoice in and be grateful for what we have, and have fun!

Remember the Homeless: One reason for the holiday of Sukkot is as a reminder of the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom, the wandering in the desert for 40 years as recounted in the Torah.  We are told that the Israelites built temporary structures to provide shelter along the way before settling into their permanent home. One social justice message of Sukkot is to remember those in our own communities who seek shelter, and so we turn our attention to homelessness. As we express gratitude for what we have, we also reach out to those who lack.

Bless the Water: There is an ancient tradition that in the Temple in Jerusalem the priests would offer a prayer for water in a special water drawing and pouring ritual. This was probably connected with the onset of the rainy season. We in the Pacific Northwest are familiar with the onset of the fall rainy season, so this idea of a prayer for water is understandable. In our contemporary liturgy Sukkot is a time to offer a prayer for rain, and so whether you use the traditional words or your own, offer a prayer of thanks for the rain—and perhaps for water in general—recognizing how so dependent we are on this simple substance.

Make a Pilgrimage: Sukkot was one of three “pilgrimage festivals” in ancient days, when the entire community would go to the Temple in Jerusalem to make their offerings and sacrifices. While today we all don’t converge on Jerusalem, Sukkot can be a time to make a pilgrimage. One way is to simply make a point of joining together with the Jewish community—make a pilgrimage to TBH or whatever community you find yourself near. Another is to take a pilgrimage outdoors, and spend some time in a natural setting that is important to you—a walk on the beach, a hike in the woods, a trip to Mount Rainier.

Unroll the Torah: The Jewish liturgical practice is to read the Torah in order over the course of a year, each Shabbat a different section (or parashah). On Simchat Torah we celebrate this practice and the Torah and renew the annual cycle of reading by reading the last part of Deuteronomy and the first part of Genesis. Some (including us at TBH) have the custom of unrolling the entire Torah during the Simchat Torah celebration, so we can take in this beautiful document, and remind us how we are “surrounded” by our traditions and values contained within.

Commit to Learn: At the TBH Simchat Torah celebration we honor our students who are beginning their studies this coming year. But we are always learning. So commit to a new course of study this year, whether formal (I’m doing a professional certificate in nonprofit management) or informal. Online or in-person. Read one book on a subject or check out them all from the library. Or learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. The cycle of learning is continuously renewing itself.

Chag sameach!