The first nail

If Yom Kippur was a day of heaven in heaven, then preparing for Succot has been like heaven on earth (only a bit more rushed). ‘No eating, no drinking’, these are not only part of the laws of Yom Kippur, but also how the Talmudic sage known as Rav describes his image of  heaven, ‘No jealousy, no envy, just basking in the presence of God’. Surrounded by so many people to whom I feel close, with beautiful music and prayers filled with the spirits of our people, parts of Yom Kippur felt just like that. Thank you!

It’s therefore wonderful to come down to earth with a bang, – the first nail in the Succah. ‘Those who are careful in keeping the commandments begin to build their Succah at once after the conclusion of Yom Kippur’, says the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish Law. It’s struck me more than once – as I strike the nails at 11.00pm and try to ensure that the first beams of the heavy structure are firmly enough in place to make it unlikely that I’ll be sued by anyone sitting under them, – that though I’m being careful about putting up my Succah, I’m being careless about loving my neighbours as myself. 
But, much as I love Succah building and believe it should be in the top five of everybody’s favourite Jewish practices, it was not my very best moment this year. That came two days later, when we began to harvest the potatoes growing in the Synagogue garden. Leslie Lyndon and I notified Gan Alon, and all the children came to participate. Digging up potatoes is always exciting; after all, one never knows if there will actually be any potatoes there, or how many or how large they will turn out be.
The children loved the activity, and so did we! There were plenty of large potatoes, small potatoes, red potatoes and white potatoes, and everyone had a turn at gathering them in. There was big boxful for Gan Alon to share. In fact there are several bowls full of them in the synagogue kitchen and I fantasise about a potato Kiddush: mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, baked potatoes and chips. Please note the word ‘fantasise’. What I’d really like is for people to take some home in return for a donation of their choice to a charity concerned with hunger.
This is really what Succot is about; joy and gratitude before God for the earth’s blessings, without which none of us could live. A Succah should be beautiful, to reflect the earth’s beauty, hung with its bounty to show thankfulness for the world’s generosity, and full of people to share the earth’s blessings together.
That these matters must never be taken for granted was brought home to be forcefully when my friend and colleague Rabbi Marc Soloway told me of the prayer he has written in the wake of the floods in Boulder, Colorado, which have wrecked his synagogue, parts of his home and the homes of numerous members of his community.
We will be saying this prayer in our services, and are supporting the local emergency appeal.
May the rain and the sun be for a blessing!  Chag Sameach

Yammim Noraim 5774: Things that matter

I imagine we are all touched today by a certain awe, an inner sense of the solemnity, depth and power of Yom Kippur, which commences with dusk this evening. We may also feel a shadow of fear for this day, above all days, is the measure of our life and the lives of our family. It is a day of great friendship and closeness; a day on which to cherish those we love and tell them so. It is also a day which may bring tears, and the benedictions of those who used to place their hands on our heads and ask God to protect us, or who once stood beside us in blessing, or whom we ourselves used to bless, may reach us only through an open and raw heart and from another world.

Still, we take strength from the fact that we are not just a congregation of those now living, but of all our family and people across time. With us in our services are Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, our great-great-grandparents, those elders who were our friends and guides in matters of wisdom and kindness during our childhood, and whose seats are no longer next to us but in our memories and hearts. They are all there with us, somehow, and their intuited blessings seek us out.

For all these reasons the heart is open now, as it may not be so readily through the busyness of all the year.

What is in our hearts? 

Of course, we have hopes and prayers for everything and everyone. We want it all, for the whole world and for ourselves: peace, especially in the Middle East and Israel, but everywhere; safety for the millions of refugees, from Syria, the Congo and from violence anywhere; an end to thirst and hunger, especially for children; a stop to our destruction of the beautiful natural world, the treasury not only of the very oxygen we breathe but of the wonder which purifies our souls; an end to hatred and a new respect for one another, of whatever faith or colour we may be, together with a renewed reverence for the beauty of this earth. For all these much needed blessings we not only pray but dedicate ourselves to work.

What else may be in our hearts? What more do we want?

We want safety for those we love. May they go out in peace and come home in peace. May God protect every hair on their heads, guard their longings and their dreams and prevent the arrows of anguish from striking their hearts. I believe this remains our prayer for those we have, even when we know it has at times been in vain, when nothing came forward and protected the person we love or kept him or her by our side. For those we have lost, our prayer is that they be at peace with God and that our memories transmute, in so far as this is possible, from an intermittent stream of pain to a steady source of blessing.

What further might there be in our hearts?

There is at once a question and a longing: God, guide me in my life. Help me to hear your voice, in all people, all life and everything that happens; help me to listen to your voice from within my conscience and my heart. Lead me to do what is good and just; don’t let me give hurt. Teach me, purify me and forgive me where I have failed. Be with me as loving-kindness, fairness and goodness. Help me live my life.
Wishing everybody Shabbat Shalom, Shanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Customs related to the beginning of Yom Kippur, especially when it begins on Friday night
People often ask these questions, so I hope the following may be helpful:
Does one make Kiddush at the meal before the fast?
No. It is not yet Yom Tov (or, this year, Shabbat), and it is effectively a weekday meal. It is fitting to begin the meal, both before and after the fast, with the Hamotzi blessing over a challah or loaf of bread, and to conclude with the Grace after Meals.
It is also customary to lay the table beautifully, as for Yom Tov.
Does one light candles before Yom Kippur?
Yes. The widely accepted practice is to light candles in the Shabbat candlesticks (this year it is in fact also Shabbat), saying the traditional blessing over them, which in this case concludes, Lehadlik ner shel Shabbat veYom Hakippurim.
This is followed by the Shehecheyanu blessing.
The candles should be lit last thing, after the meal, as the act of lighting them is traditionally understood to usher in Shabbat, Yom Tov and the fast for those who perform it. (But one can make a mental stipulation if one still has to drive to shul, or wants to eat a last apple, so long as one finishes before 7.04 when Shabbat and the fast are ‘brought in by heaven’.)
Many people have the custom of lighting a Yahrzeit candle before Yom Kippur for all those they have lost.
What does one traditionally wear on Yom Kippur?
The tradition is, if possible, to wear white and not to wear jewellery. This is understood to be in imitation of the angels who (apparently!) dress in white. It also reminds us of shrouds, thus humbling the heart.
The services are long and often hard to follow; can I bring reading material to the synagogue?
Yes, certainly. Anything which stirs the heart and awakens the soul is appropriate. Concentration in the prayers does not mean following every word, but rather participating in the creation of an open spirit of heartfelt reflection.
It is a firm principle to give Tzedakah generously on (that is before and or after) Yom Kippur.

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