This Tuesday we resumed our weekly Torah class after taking a break for several weeks during the High Holidays, Sukkot and Simchat Torah season. Most of this week's Torah portion speaks about Noah and the great flood. But nothing in the Torah is just a story from thousands of years ago, it is all an important and very practical lesson for our lives today.
Like Noah, we too can face a flood. Each one of us can be flooded by the daily hassles of life, be it emotional, mental, and especially the mundanities of earning a living. Any or all of these things can completely drown us, upending our ability to live a life of harmony and fulfillment.
To protect ourselves from these waters, like Noah, we too must "enter the ark," that is a space of holiness and spirituality. “Entering the ark” essentially means choosing a time in the day, a day in the week, or even a year in your life, where we surround ourselves exclusively in an environment of Torah and mitzvahs. Only then we can be certain that the hassles of life will leave us unscathed.
This idea of "entering the ark" also comes with communal responsibility, and our obligation to care for the physical and spiritual needs of others. It would be inappropriate for any of us to think "I am taken care of, I am living a good quality life in my comfort zone and what happens outside is not my issue." Here too we must look at the verse, in which G-d tells Noah that in addition to himself, he must bring others into the ark with him as well; his wife and sons, their wives, as well as animal life. We are responsible not only for ourselves but also for the material and spiritual well-being of those around us.
And just like Noah was commanded to enter the ark, G-d also commanded Noah to exit the ark. You might wonder that it's obvious that he eventually needed to leave the ark, for what reason did Noah need to be told to do so?
This is because at times we can get too comfortable in our own little ark of holiness. Sometimes we may forget that our ultimate purpose is to engage with the world completely, and transform it for the better. To do that we must leave the ark, but to leave, we must first enter.
Only by entering and giving ourselves a strong foundation of Torah and mitzvahs can we ultimately succeed in living a life of purpose and meaning, with peace, love and true harmony.
Just a few weeks ago, at Shabbat service and lunch, we ran into a problem. We ran out of siddurim. But that was the best problem I could have ever asked for. It showed us the direction we were headed in as we approached the High Holidays. So although people had to share siddurim, everyone enjoyed the gourmet Kiddush and lunch. Somehow, with Mussie's magic, there was plenty of food!
This really set the tone for our 6th High Holidays since we arrived in Sioux Falls. And this was definitely the most uplifting and meaningful High Holiday season.
From the services and community lunches on both days of Rosh Hashanah, to heartfelt prayers during the Yom Kippur services, and incredible break fast, together as a community we prayed, cried, sang, and ate.
Transitioning into the Days of Joy, Sukkot with Lulav and Latte each morning, home visits, traveling Sukkah statewide, the special mitzvahs of the holiday were available to everyone in the community who wished. We were also joined in the Sukkah by a bi-partisan group of state legislators and elected officials who learned more about the Jewish community and our holidays.
Capping off the last day of Sukkot with a Sushi in the Sukkah dinner, followed by the traditional Simchat Torah celebrations of Hakafot dancing with the Torahs, the energy in the room that evening, the joyful singing and dancing was uplifting. The many children and young people who joined were the shining highlight!
Of course, our tremendous thanks and appreciation goes to each one of our 153 friends who showed their love for the work Chabad does in the community and joyfully participated in our matching fundraising campaign. Together, you raised $39,564 in just 36 hours!
This feeling of vibrancy, growth, excitement and pride is palpable. We recently welcomed several new families and individuals to the community. More and more people are participating in the various offerings of Chabad, and as always we look forward to welcoming you. There is a place for you and you will always be a treasured part of this beautiful community.
As we conclude this high energy and busy month, I'm reminded of a famous Chabad teaching, that now, after the holidays, is the time for us all to "unpack" the packages of good treasures and great spirituality that we amassed during this season. Throughout the year, we can always look back at this time, be it the solemn prayers of Yom Kippur, the joy of Simchat Torah, or the moments we were surrounded by the Sukkah walls under the sky, and take inspiration from it for our day to day life.
It really is a great time to be a Jew in South Dakota, and this is just the beginning!
Next week, on Sunday evening, we will be celebrating the holiday of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. This comes on the heels of Sukkot.
Simchat Torah is the one the most joyful holidays in Judaism, and celebrates the annual completion of the Torah reading. Growing up it was always my favorite. Yet, for so many, the main exposure in a Synagogue is to Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur, which could be very solemn.
What do we do on this holiday? We read the last verses of the Torah, and immediately, read the first verses. This is because learning Torah never ends, so the very moment we conclude, we begin once again. No matter how much we think we know, there is always more to learn, new perspectives to understand, and deeper insights to appreciate.
And then we dance. We dance with the Torah scrolls like there is no tomorrow.
We dance because we are genuinely happy and thankful to G-d for giving us this greatest gift, and for the ability we have each day to learn it and live it. And when one is genuinely happy, they dance and celebrate!
What is most interesting about this holiday, is that it is not focused on the scholarly accomplishments of Torah learning. This is not a celebration just for those who have dedicated many hours each day or week to Torah study. It is also not a celebration based on the depth of one's knowledge.
On Simchat Torah, we are celebrating the Torah itself. When we dance with the Torah, it’s rolled up and tied closed with a strap and cover.
When the Torah is open, each person may relate to it differently. Some people know more than others, some people can learn more than others, so we may not always feel so equal next to an open Torah. But when the Sefer Torah is closed, we’re all the same.
On this holiday, every Jew is equal in that we all received the Torah together, and it belongs to each of us. This is why we dance with the Torah while it is covered. During this celebration, every person, no matter their level of knowledge or the depth of their understanding, celebrates and rejoices the same way.
We will be celebrating the holiday with a Sushi in the Sukkah on Sunday evening, followed by the Simchat Torah celebration. Whether Hakafot and Simchat Torah is something you grew up with, or it is new to you, please join us as we celebrate together. This will be a highlight of your Jewish year!
As I made Havdalah at the conclusion of a most inspiring Yom Kippur, and we all sang the lively holiday song vesamachta as the candle was extinguished into the wine, we could feel the Days of Joy were now upon us.
Sukkot begins on Sunday evening, and one of the very special mitzvahs of this joyful holiday season is the Lulav and Etrog, also known as "the four kinds." The Torah says "you shall take for yourselves the fruit of a beautiful tree, a bound branch of a palm tree, boughs of thick-leaved trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the L‑rd your G‑d for seven days.”
The midrash describes these four kinds as being symbolic of four types of Jews: an etrog, which possesses both a good taste as well as a fragrant odor, is symbolic of the Jew who possesses both Torah learning and mitzvahs, good deeds. The palm branch has a good taste but no fragrant odor, signifying those who have obtained Torah education but lack in mitzvah observance. Those individuals who perform mitzvahs but are lacking in Torah knowledge are likened to the myrtle, which has a fragrant odor but lacks taste. The willow, which is inedible and lacks aroma as well, represents those people lacking both in Torah and good deeds.
When teaching this midrash, the Rebbe shared a beautiful lesson. Just as all four kinds together are necessary for the performance of the mitzvah, and only then can the blessing be made, so, too, must all Jews be united; even if just the “willow” is missing, then Jewry as a whole is lacking an essential component. Similarly, just as the willow need not have its qualities revealed for it to be utilized, so must our approach to the “willow Jew” be without pre-conditions. It wholly suffices that she or he is a Jew.
It is only when all four types of Jews are brought together and held together, that we can have a real community. That is why every Jew, no matter background, level of knowledge, commitment, or social status, is valued, welcomed, and very much a treasured part of our community.
This message is especially important this year, being that it is a Hakhel year, a "Year of Gathering," when we try to gather as much as possible, to increase and strengthen our Jewish unity and observance.
We look forward to welcoming you at the Sukkot Hakhel celebrations!
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.