Archive for Sukkot

Sukkot: Peace and War

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat of Sukkot 
“On that day, when Gog sets foot on the soil of Israel — declares the Lord GOD — My raging anger shall flare up . . . “(Ezekiel 38:18)
Good afternoon! After days of rain, it’s finally sunny for Sukkot in the Hudson Valley! Unfortunately, the special haftarah [reading from the prophets] for the Shabbat of Sukkot is not so sunny in its tone and imagery. The text is from Ezekiel 38 and 39, and is a violent and awful prophesy of an apocalyptic battle between God and the forces of “Gog of the land of Magog,” an evil nation that will suffer a terrible vengeance at the End of Days. 
Prof. Michael Fishbane, who wrote the introductions to the haftarot found in the Etz HayimTorah commentary used in many Conservative synagogues, points out that this is not the first mention during Sukkot of battles during messianic times. The prophetic reading for the first day comes from Zechariah, and mentions not only a war of the Lord but also a great reconciliation afterwards, when all nations shall come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot together. (See verse 16 here.) Fishbane also notes that the rabbis assumed that the war of Gog was the same war mentioned in Zechariah; hence, tomorrow’s text is an extension of the earlier one, in the understanding of the ancient rabbis who chose them.                                                                                                                                     
Yet the apocalyptic images of our prophetic texts hardly seems to fit the celebratory and joyous mood of the holiday. Some say that part of our joy comes from a renewed faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, but perhaps these stark texts portraying future upheavals and violence are also somber reminders of the fragility of our peace. Like a sukkah, peace can fall apart in a moment; like a sukkah, peace is temporary and fleeting. We must be mindful of peace when we have it, but not be afraid to confront evil when we must. 
All of the Abrahamic faiths- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- have ideas of an apocalyptic battle at the end of days. There are those who desire the end times, and seek to understand their enemies in theological terms. Gog, to them, is not a symbol but somebody on this earth who must be fought in the present moment- there is no waiting for Divine intervention. 
I reject this. I  believe it’s the job of religious moderates to stand against such reasoning and instead assume that the wars of the Lord are indeed only God’s to fight. Our job is not to rush the end times, but make this time as sweet and peaceful as we can. Our job is to make the whole world a sukkah of peace, now, and let the Holy One handle the end of days. 
moadim l’simcha,*
*happy holidays 

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Sukkot: A Fleeting Moment

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Dear Friends: 

It’s definitely the harvest season in the Northeast- the leaves have started to change and many of the summer fruits are no longer available at the local farmer’s market. Yet we still go according to the seasonal rhythms of the land of Israel and make our sukkot, our open booths, to “dwell” in for seven days, as sign of our joy and gratitude for the blessings of nature and the wonders of Jewish history. 

The essence of a sukkah is its finitude; it has temporary walls and an open roof of plants, stalks, boughs or leaves. Yet ultimately, all of our dwellings are temporary; this point is made clear in the haftarah, or prophetic reading, for the second day of the holiday. It’s the story of the early days of the ancient Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant and other holy vessels were brought into the new structure by King Solomon, This was done during the holiday of Sukkot, a supremely festive time in the Biblical calendar, and was part of the overall dedication and inauguration of the Temple, which itself marked a new phase of Jewish history. 

When the holy vessels were brought to the Temple, the Presence of the Sacred was sensed to fill the building and Solomon announces: 

” I have now built for You
A stately House,
A place where You
May dwell forever.” (1 Kings 8:13- full text here.)

The irony, of course, is that we, Solomon’s heirs, know well that the ancient Temple, the “stately House,” was itself merely temporary, lasting a few hundred years, being destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again. 

Clearly the obvious connection of the haftarah to the holiday is the mention of the festival itself; we’ve been celebrating at this time of year for a very long time, and that in itself is a humbling and amazing thing to contemplate. The sukkah is understood as a dwelling place of the Divine Presence, just as the ancient Temple was, but it comes and goes in a week, and we know from the start it won’t be there forever. It’s a cliche to say that joy can be found by being “in the moment,” but it’s true- nothing lasts forever, not the ancient Temple, not our houses or wealth or health or careers or anything else in which we might place a hope for ultimate security. 

The sukkah reminds us to be more fully aware of the particular moment: if it’s raining or hot or cold, we feel it, and give thanks nonetheless. That ability, to be mindful and grateful and fully present, is truly a more reliable path to spiritual awareness than even the grandest edifice, and all it requires is an open heart. 

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach, 


P.S.- who would have thought that the Huffington Post would be a source for great Torah learning? Check out Sukkot commentaries from my alma mater, the Ziegler School, here and here

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Sukkot: Ingathering

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. (Shmot/ Exodus 34:22)

Shalom one and all!

We’re just about to start the week-long holiday of Sukkot, with its several mitzvot and interesting history, which includes its several names: Sukkot, or the festival of “booths;” Chag Ha’asif, or the Festival of Ingathering; or simple He-chag, “the festival.” Sukkot is called the festival of “ingathering,” or harvest, a few times in the Torah; the verse above is taken from the reading for the Shabbat which occurs during the week-long holiday.

The word used for “gathering,” or harvest, asif, is interesting, precisely because there’s a regular Hebrew word for “harvest,” which the Torah could have used if it wanted to make it plain that it’s commanding a harvest festival. Our friend Rashi learns from another verse that asif means not just harvesting, but bringing the grain into the house- that is, the whole process of preparing the harvest and storing it for later.

It makes sense to me that Sukkot is both the harvest festival, celebrating the bounty of the Earth, and also the festival of “gathering into the house,” understood metaphorically. We’ve just come through the “ten days of returning,” ending with a marathon of introspection and fasting on Yom Kippur. We took a personal and collective moral inventory, extended forgiveness when we could, tried to leave in 5770 what deserves to stay there. . . and now, a few days later, it’s time to gather the thoughts and experiences of the previous weeks, from before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, and “bring them into the house,” that is, into ourselves, into the way we live. It’s a time to take the experience of the Days of Awe out into the “real world,” as a Sukkah is literally only valid if it’s outdoors, outside our private realms.

We gather the sparks from Torah learning, prayer and self-reflection over the Days of Awe and bring them into the Sukkah, where we celebrate, feast and enjoy life- precisely because we are not stuck in the previous year, but celebrating the new one. Our physical harvest is the crop planted in the spring; our spiritual harvest is forward-looking, towards the “turn of the year,” as we rededicate ourselves to those ideals and goals which are the worthy basis of life itself.

A happy and joyous holiday season to one and all,


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Sukkot: Hope Wisely

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Well, it’s almost Sukkot- the holiday of “booths” which follows hot on
the heels of Yom Kippur- and the events of the season feels familiar:
the rush to get everything done, the cloudy skies over the Hudson
Valley, the upcoming baseball playoffs – which, we hope, will end up
with a Red Sox- Yankees series.

Ah, yes, the haftarot of Sukkot, which speak of the eventual triumph
of good over evil in the days to come. (No connection to the MLB
post-season is officially implied.)

Sukkot, like Pesach, has two days of Yom Tov, or full festival days,
at the beginning of the week long observance; each of those days has a
special haftarah, and the two are very different. The haftarah for the
first day of Sukkot is a prophesy of messianic redemption, in which
all nations shall be brought to account but will eventually be united
in worship in Jerusalem on Sukkot itself:

“All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem
shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Lord of
Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths” (Zechariah 14:16)

The days of the messiah are imagined as days of both awesome and
terrible justice as well as the eventual spiritual unity of humankind-
a provocative yet hopeful imagining of the future.

The haftarah for the second day of Sukkot, however, is set in the
distant past, when King Shlomo [Solomon] constructed the Beit
HaMikdash, or Temple, in Jerusalem

“All the men of Israel gathered before King Solomon at the Feast, in
the month of Ethanim — that is, the seventh month. When all the elders
of Israel had come, the priests lifted the Ark and carried up the Ark
of the Lord. . . ” (I Kings 8:2–4)

In the text above, “the Feast” refers to Sukkot, which was a time of
great communal pilgrimage and rejoicing. Shlomo goes on to recount how
his father, King David, intended to build the Temple, but it was given
to Shlomo to complete the task- thus fulfilling a promise made to God,
as God fulfilled the promises made to David and his descendants.

Both haftarot refer to events which happen on Sukkot- although the
messianic gathering of nations hasn’t happened yet, the connection to
the holiday is clear. Yet it’s interesting to note the order in which
we read these texts: we describe our hopes for a redeemed future
before we relate our connection to the Biblical past. One could
imagine the ancient sages putting the story of King Shlomo first, thus
establishing the idea of the Temple and its connection to Sukkot,
before the Zechariah text, which describes Sukkot as the temporal
symbol of our most universal hopes.

Hirsch suggests that we put the story of the past after the story of
the future, as it were, because while we might entertain great hopes
for the future redemption, we also have to be mindful of the mistakes
of the past. We know what happened after that great moment of unity in
King Shlomo’s day- the nation of Israel tore itself apart, fell to its
enemies, and suffered defeat and exile. So yes, we believe in
redemption, but we are not naive- in fact, our faith is not a matter
of naivete, but of determination: despite the contrast between the
story of King Shlomo and the tragedies which follow, we yet believe
that the uplifting of humankind is possible. It’s been a hard struggle
at times since the days of Shlomo, but we will nevertheless rejoice
and look to a brighter day ahead. Putting the two haftarot in this
order teaches us to hope wisely, to learn from history, to temper our
messianic fervor with the acknowledgment that our work is not yet

With warmest wishes for a happy and healthy holiday,


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Sukkot: Truest Rejoicing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Greetings all on this glorious autumn day! We’re back after a break
for Yom Kippur last week and right now we’re smack dab in the middle
of the Sukkot holiday. Our regular Torah reading cycle is preempted by
the special reading for the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot- check out
the link below for an explanation.

For today, just a quick thought about the Sukkot holiday, also known
by two other names: “Hag Ha’asif,” or “the holiday of ingathering,”
and “zman Simchatenu,” the “season of our joy.” Sukkot also has two
sets of very distinctive mitzvot: dwelling in the Sukkah, or booth,
and waving the lulav and etrog, the “four species” we are told to take
in Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40:

“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches
of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and
you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.”

So far, so good- although we do not customarily take up the lulav and
etrog on Shabbat, doing so the rest of the holiday is part of our
rejoicing and celebrating. Well, OK, but what’s so joyful about
holding a piece of fruit and some branches and shaking them around?

Sefer HaHinnuch offers an interesting interpretation of the meaning
behind lulav and etrog, based on the fact that rejoicing comes
naturally during a festival celebrating the successful harvest. We are
rejoicing for our harvest and bounty, and so we have a special
mitzvah- lulav and etrog- which helps us grasp (quite literally) that
our rejoicing should be “before the Lord.” That is, by taking lulav
and etrog, we are reminded to give thanks to the God of our
understanding for the many blessings of our lives. Having a
distinctive spiritual practice for this festival raises up our
rejoicing from “the harvest is done- it’s party time!” to “the harvest
is done- and I am grateful to be alive, to be sustained, to be
connected to the Land of Israel, for all my blessings.”

Seen this way, lulav and etrog transform something ordinary-
celebrating when the work is done- to something extraordinary: an
opportunity to practice gratitude on the deepest level. This is true
joy: not a transitory pleasure but a heightened consciousness. This is
what mitzvot, our spiritual disciplines, are all about: a greater
perception of our connection to the earth, to each other, and to the
Source of All.

With warmest wishes for the most joyous Sukkot, and Shabbat Shalom too-


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Sukkot: Between the Forest and the Hearth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

I hope everybody had a wonderful and thought-provoking experience on
the Days of Awe- it’s kind of awe-inspiring in its own way that the
Jewish calendar asks us to go from the solemnity of Yom Kippur to the
festivity of Sukkot just a few days later. A Sukkah, as most readers
know, is a temporary hut or booth constructed under the open sky, with
some sort of plant material like branches or stalks or boughs loosely
covering it. The practice is to eat and learn and rejoice in the
Sukkah for the week-long holiday, making it our “dwelling-place,” as
it were.

In its most ancient context, it’s possible that the practice of Sukkah
originated in agricultural huts that farmers would put up out in the
fields during harvest time, in order to be able to work from dawn
until dusk. Sukkot is still clearly associated with the fall harvest
and our connection with the natural world, but lest one should think
that a Sukkah would be even better placed out in the woods, the Talmud
tells us not to build one under a tree, saying that “if one made a
sukkah under a tree, it is as if he made it within the house.”
(MIshnah Sukkah, 1:2)

The plain meaning of the comparison is that just as a Sukkah built
inside the house is not under the open sun, so a Sukkah under a tree
is also not under the sky and sun. There are all sorts of reasons
given why a Sukkah has to be out under the sky, but a common teaching
is that the Sukkah reminds us of our “exposure” and frailty in the
world- we are not as sheltered as we think from either the forces of
nature nor from the potential for upheaval in society. That’s why
building a Sukkah under a tree- symbolic of feeling sheltered in
nature- is like building one in a house- our more “civilized” shelter.

Human beings are subject to floods, fires, hurricanes, recessions and
more, but message of Sukkot is not esoteric: life is fragile, subject
to all sorts of changes and problems, but we rejoice anyway. Sukkot is
“Zman Simchatenu,” the “Season of our Rejoicing,” even if its primary
symbol- the Sukkah- is by its very nature something temporary and
rickety, like life itself. On Yom Kippur, we confront mortality and
resolve to use our moments wisely; just a few days later, on Sukkot,
in a very different way, we confront life’s unpredictability and
resolve to rejoice in every blessing given to us.

Hag Sameach,


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Sukkot: Both Then and Now

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Hag Sameach [happy holidays!] It’s a lovely day in the Hudson River
Valley- the trees are beginning to show incredible colors, and the
squirrels in my backyard are overjoyed at the all-you-can-eat buffet
I’ve just put out on top of my sukkah [I used cornstalks for s’chach,
the covering, with ears of corn still on the stalk].

A sukkah is, by definition, a temporary structure, at least partially
open to the sky, and covered with branches, leaves, boughs, or stalks-
some kind of natural plant covering. Aside from being beautiful and
fun, the sukkah is a mitzvah [commandment] of memory and reenactment,
as we are told in Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:

“You shall live in booths [sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel
shall live in booths, 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, I the LORD your God. ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:42-43)

We have other mitzvot of remembrance and re-enactment in Judaism; for
example, eating matzah on Pesach is a reenactment of the experiece of
eating “lechem oni,” or “bread of affliction.” What’s interesting
about the sukkah (actually, matzah too, but that’s another discussion)
is that it’s not entirely clear what is being remembered and
reenacted. Two famous rabbis, Akiva and Eliezer, of the early Talmudic
period, had a well-known dispute regarding the nature of the sukkah:
Rabbi Akiva thought that we build a sukkah to remember the actual
dwellings of the Israelites during the 40 year sojourn in the
wilderness, but Rabbi Eliezer thought that the sukkot were the “clouds
of glory,” or manifestation of the Divine Presence, which accompanied
and guided the Israelites along the way. (Cf. Shmot/Exodus 40:33-38,
for example.)

Of course, the problem with Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation is that the
Israelites are described as living in tents, not “booths,” in their
encampments; for example, in Bamidbar/Numbers 16, the story of Korach,
tents are referred to several times. On the other hand, Rabbi
Eliezer’s view- that God sheltered the Israelites in the Divine
Presence, like a sukkah- requires a certain leap of the imagination,
as it is not directly supported by the text, as far as I can tell.

However, both Akiva and Eliezer seem to be making a philosophical
point in their interpretation of the sukkah: for Akiva, when we sit in
the sukkah, we are to remember the hardships that our ancestors went
through, the lived history of our people and our dependence on their
sacrifice. For Eliezer, the experience of a sukkah is more
theological: it’s not so much about the faithfulness of our ancestors
as the faithfulness of God, Who was Present for them, and Who can be
present for us when we open ourselves up to spiritual awareness by
sitting in a reified symbol of that Presence.

By now you’re probably thinking: “but wait! this is a false choice!
it’s about both God AND history,” and of course, you’re right, and
that’s why the Talmud lets both views sit side by side. A Judaism
denuded of connection to the lived history of our people is an
abstraction, a mere faith, without the tremendous moral obligation
towards community that is at the core of both Jewish ethics and
experience. On the other hand, a Judaism which is only history and
memory tends towards guilt and nostalgia, both of which are deadly to
joy, vitality, orientation towards repairing the world, and a sense of
the Divine Presence in <our> lives.

So we need both Akiva’s sense of history and Eliezer’s sense of
spiritual experience to fully appreciate what a sukkah is. Even
better, when we can feel both things at once- the “then” and the
“now”- then our sukkah is more than a remembrance, and more than a
commandment, but is rather a connection to the past, a grounding in
the present, and an orientation towards the future, which is, after
all, a definition of Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,


PS- our first link is towards a page of resources and learning for
Sukkot, and our second link is for the Sukkot Torah readings:

For family discussion, the first page has a study guide and questions,
and the second link has a GREAT rendition of the Talmud on various
kinds of permitted and forbidden Sukkot, with pictures and Dr.
Suess-ical rhymes:

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Sukkot: A Presence Passing By

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Hag Sameach/ A Happy Holiday!

We’re in the middle of Sukkot, the “Season of our Rejoicing,” and so
the regular Torah reading cycle is set aside for a special Torah
reading appropriate for the holiday. In fact, the Torah is read every
day of the festival, but on the Shabbat of Sukkot, the reading is
Exodus 33:12 – 34:26, which takes place just after the story of the
Golden Calf. There’s a special maftir (concluding reading) and
haftarah as well.

What’s interesting about the reading for the Shabbat of Sukkot is how
the ancient rabbis framed those few verses which actually speak of
the holiday itself. The reading starts in Shemot/ Exodus 33, but it’s
not till chapter 34 that the “Feast of the Ingathering” is mentioned.
The first part of the reading is the story of Moshe returning to God
after the idolatry and violence associated with the Golden Calf:
Moshe goes back to the mountain and admits that he, too, wants to
experience God’s Presence more directly, and begs for a spiritual

God grants Moshe’s request, and in the famous image, puts him into
the cleft of a rock while the Divine Presence passes by. Moshe
doesn’t “see” anything, but hears (experiences?) the Divine
Attributes of forgiveness and mercy. (Cf. 34:6-8, which we sing on
the Days of Awe and other festivals.) The experience seems to last
only a moment, but I cannot doubt that it changed Moshe forever.

So what does all this have to do with Sukkot? One theme that emerges
from both the holiday and the Torah reading is that of temporality.
Things only last a moment; they pass by quickly, and you can miss the
experience entirely if you’re not paying attention.

Notice, for example, how many times the word “pass” (in various forms
of the Hebrew word l’avor) occurs in this narrative:

Verse 33:19: And God answered answered, “I will make all My goodness
pass before you . . . .

Verse 33:22: And, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft
of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed
by. . . . . .

Verse 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “Adonai!
Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in
kindness and faithfulness. . . . .

You get the idea by now: Moshe’s experience of God’s Presence was a
fleeting moment that quickly “passed by,” leaving behind the
challenge to assimilate what happened and gain its insights. Sukkot,
too, is about recognizing what is both precious and perishable: a
Sukkah is a frail structure, which can be blown apart by the wind and
lasts only a week. We build it, decorate it, rejoice in it- and it’s
gone till next year.

We can despair because beautiful things last only a short time, or we
can strive to be fully aware of the blessing that is available right
now, in the present moment. We can feel God in our lives, but have to
recognize that this feeling (like most other feelings) ebbs and
flows, grows larger and recedes. As I’ve pointed out before- the
challenge is not to have a peak, mountain-top spiritual experience
every day, but to open our hearts to the possibility that God might
be revealed to us at any moment, and then to stay true to that moment
after it passes.

Our Sukkah is fragile and temporary, but its lessons are enduring.
Our sense of the Divine may be fleeting and swift- after all, even
Moshe had to come down from the mountain at some point- but like a
Sukkah, it can focus our attentions on the most real things, which
would go unseen and unfelt if we let them pass by.

with warmest wishes for a joyous holiday,


PS- as usual, you can read the Torah reading in translation here:

PPS: For more about Sukkot in general, you can’t go wrong with

PPPS: If you didn’t see it before, do check out the laws of Sukkot-
Dr. Seuss style:

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Sukkah in a Storm

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Dear Friends:

This is the first weekly message of our new email “drasha-
delivery” service, and we’re already up to more than 45
subscribers. Thanks for making me follow through with this idea!

For our inaugural message, it seems appropriate to consider
the frustrations putting the roof on a sukkah in a rainstorm, as
that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing in a few hours.

First, let’s review a few basic FAQ’s regarding a sukkah: a kosher
sukkah must have walls (at least two and part of a third), must
be out in the open (i.e., not under a tree or roof), and must be
covered in s’chach, which is defined as loose, unbundled plant
materials, which grew in the ground but is no longer attached to
it. Thus, s’chach could be cornstalks, bamboo poles, or cut
branches, but not vines which are still growing, branches still
attached to the tree, or bundles of hay, for example.

Furthermore, s’chach cannot be something which is fashioned
into a utensil- rope, for example, is cotton, but it’s fashioned into
something other than its natural form. The reason s’chach
cannot be bundled (say, like a bundle of hay or grain) is that
sometimes, in the old days, people would put bundles of grain
on the roof to dry, and s’chach must be placed deliberately on the
sukkah to fulfill the mitzvah.

So far, so good. Now, here’s our problem: s’chach also cannot
be permanently attached to the walls of the sukkah. For example,
it’s fine to have a few narrow boards running across the top of
the sukkah, as part of the roof, to support the s’chach, but the
s’chach itself has to be loose and unattached. This leaves the
s’chach vulnerable to winds and rain, and means that anybody
who builds a sukkah might do all kinds of preparations just to
find that a windstorm has blown off the roof, and thus “un-
sukkafied” it.

Thus, a kosher sukkah has a distinctly tentative quality, and to
me, that’s part of the spirituality of the holiday. In order to make
a sukkah kosher, to have to be willing to let it blow away, as it
were- you cannot become too “attached” to the sukkah by
making it permanent. What’s true of a sukkah is true of any other
material object: it’s only temporary, it’s not that important, and we
risk misunderstanding its purpose if we try to make material
things permanent fixtures in our lives.

Watching in frustration as the wind threatens to blow the roof off
my sukkah becomes a teaching moment for putting all kinds of
other things into perspective, because it captures the essential
truth that material things come and go, and there’s no point in
becoming too attached to any one of them. In Judaism, what’s
most enduring are relationships, not objects, and paradoxically,
as we strengthen the bonds of friendship and family by
celebrating together in our sukkot, we have to be willing to let the
sukkah itself go, if that’s the way the wind blows.

a warm and dry holiday to all of you,


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