This is a repeat of a Shabbos email from 2009, likely the last time I spent Succos in Israel.
The crowd started thickening about fifteen feet from the massive double doors leading into the succah. It was definitely no ordinary succah. It was made of solid Jerusalem stone walls twenty five feet tall, as it spends most of the year being a regular building. But before Succos the entire roof is removed, and reed mats are laid down on wooden ceiling beams to convert the building into a 2,000 person capacity succah.
The crowd was no ordinary crowd either. Being that the sixth night of Succos is an auspicious time for Belzer Chassidim, they had flocked en masse from all corners of Israel and the Diaspora and were converging upon the succah just as I arrived. By the time I got to the door, I was facing a wall of black silk caftans worn by all size and manner of chassid, each topped in a regal fur hat.
Slithering through crowds was always a specialty of mine, and within a few short minutes I found myself deep in the midst of over 3,500 Belzer Chassidim. (The previous Belzer Rebbe miraculously made his way to Israel during WWII, where upon his arrival he didn’t even have a minyan of followers. Today there are over 90,000 Belzer chassidim worldwide!) The men were singing in perfect unison, a low deep song which penetrated the heart more than the ear.
I experienced visual overload with so many things vying for eye-time all at once. I wanted to look at the Belzer Rebbe, sitting at the head of a table over one hundred feet long and twenty feet wide, covered in crisp white cloth. Dressed in a magnificent silver caftan, the rebbe was leading his faithful in song, his face radiating the joy of the holiday. But I also found my eyes drawn to the ceiling where, suspended from the succah roof, were massive chandeliers, fifteen feet long, made up of hundreds of bottles of wine and thousands of apples and esrogim. And I was pulled to watch the waves of thousands of Chassidim stretching from the floor to the ceiling, rocked slowly back and forth to the tempo of the song. They were all wearing similar fur hats, similar caftans, even similar knicker-socks, and were all focused intently on their Rebbe, as he shared his holiday meal and his fountain of knowledge with them. There was no sense of competition, fashion one-upmanship, or rat-race in this succah, instead it permeated serenity, brotherhood, unity, and collective joy.
From the Belzer Succah I walked to the end of the Meah Shearim to join in a Simchat Beit Hashoeva of the Yerushalmi Jews, people who have been living in Jerusalem for 7-10 generations. Although my feet would later punish me for walking far too many miles, at the moment I barely noticed the ache. No, all I noticed was the throngs of people walking the streets all around me. Jews of every flavor were hurrying to the dozens of celebrations that overtake the ancient neighborhood of Meah Shearim (the first settlement outside the Old City) each night of Succos. Excitedly talking to one another, hundreds of Jews flowed by me every minute, a river of my brothers and sisters who I’ll probably never meet, but whose kinship I found palpable.
Finally I arrived at the new and expanded Beit Midrash of the “Rav Aharaleh” Yerushalmi Jews. One of the things I like most about this group is their distinctive dress. Their long gold robes are wrapped with a foot wide white-and-blue striped sash. Every boy, upon his bar mitzvah, receives a fur hat similar to the ones in Belz (albeit a bit thinner), and when they dance quickly, the swirl of contrasting color is almost psychedelic! On a balcony in one corner of the Beit Midrash was the band, a group of about ten musicians and singers rocking out on keyboards, electric guitars, and the latest sound equipment available, yet still clad in the signature gold robes. Along half the walls were bleachers filled with spectators, and in the center was a teeming mass of thousands, creating multiple concentric circles which spun around endlessly to the blaring music of the rocking rabbis in the balcony.
After dancing for a few minutes, I found myself melting into the mass of people. Singing along, dancing one round after another, you sort of lose yourself in the crowd and get swept up by the euphoria of your surroundings. In need of a slight break, I climbed to the top level of the bleachers to watch(although definitely without the dexterity I once had when doing the same maneuvers…). The view was wild. You could pan from the rocking rabbis on the balcony to the hundreds and hundreds of people on the floor, to the far corner where dozens of cute, little Yerushalmi kids with flowing sidelocks, flushed faces, and white peaked yarmulkas learned to dance with a patient and ever-smiling teacher.
When the music finally ended, and I found myself in an ailing diesel passenger van bumping my way back home, all I could think of was the unity and sense of belonging that I felt that night. These were all my people! No matter how differently they dressed than I, no matter how different their daily life is from mine, these are my brothers and sister, our klal yisrael.
America may have been founded on rugged individualism, each man tending to his homestead, roughing it alone, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, but our people are built by rugged collectivism. It is defined by the ability to feel that you belong to something greater than yourself, the ability to sense a connection to every Jew, gold caftan, gold kippah, or gold nose ring. The Belzer chassid swaying to the song at his Rebbe’s table, the Sephardic teenager rushing through Meah Shearim high on the air of celebration reverberating off those old stone walls, and the Yerushalmi grandfather slowly circling the dance floor, his smile reaching from one white sidelock to the other, they are all parts of the colorful mosaic of klal yisrael, and I felt such an honor to know that my tile belongs in that mosaic as well.
On the sixth night of Succos I discovered that sometimes when you let yourself blend in and melt away, you don’t lessen who you are, you don’t lose yourself, but instead become part of something so much greater than you ever could be alone.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This Parsha is the most fundamental of all Parshios. Just as every physical trait a person has is coded in his DNA at the moment of conception, so too, the summation of the human experience is coded in this week’s Parsha, Bereishit. One could spend an entire year studying this Parsha and its copious commentary, and still not finish even a fraction of what it contains. In it we find; Creation, the first man and woman, the first sin, the first Repentance, the first murder, the first degeneration of society as a whole, and much more. But perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this Parsha is the first sin.
G-d put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and gave them everything they could possibly need (it was always spring weather, food grew ready to be eaten on trees, there was no sickness…). G-d spoke to them (an incredible experience in its own right), and requested only one thing of them: Don’t eat from the fruit of one tree. Yet, before their first day was over, they disobeyed G-d! How can we understand this original error which impacted the world more fundamentally than any other single action in history?
One way to understand Adam’s mistake is to realize that he thought he knew a better way to serve G-d, even though G-d indicated otherwise. Adam felt that to serve G-d simply by not eating a single species of fruit, in a place where G-d’s presence was palpable, was not the most he could do. He was capable of sacrificing so much more for G-d! He was willing and able to serve G-d in a world shrouded in darkness, where it would be much more difficult to see G-d and appreciate the importance of serving Him. Adam knew that if he ate from the fruit of the tree, it would be like turning off a celestial light switch, and G-d’s presence in the world would become much more hidden as a result of sin which had entered the universe. Certain that he could still serve G-d in such a difficult world, and confident that it would result in a far greater glorification of G-d, Adam ate the forbidden fruit.
But this was a colossal error, one that until today continues to challenge us! The truth is that when a person thinks like that, he is using his ego and believing that he know better than G-d. G-d said serve me by doing X, but I say that I can serve you better by doing Y. The truth is that there can be no greater service of G-d than doing exactly what He asks from us!
Today, we find this idea particularly difficult. We try to tell ourselves that G-d didn’t really mean that we should do everthing he asked of us in the Torah, or that if He would see the modern world, He would certainly cancel a number of the “outdated” mitzvot. We feel like we can decipher what He really wants of us, even if it is different than what He told us. The truth is that if we want to serve G-d, and not ourselves, we have to trust that He knows best, and realize that the best way to serve Him is to follow what He asks, not what we think He should have asked! If we do that, we will be able to reverse the effects of the primordial sin and bring the world back to the utopia it was before sin arrived on the scene!
Breishit starts off with the Creation of the Universe and all that is in it. G-d completed all His work in six days (this was way before zoning laws and building codes). Here is a quick rundown on the daily creating schedule for those first six days. On the first day He created light and darkness. On the second He created the heavens and separated the lower waters (oceans, which at that time covered the globe), from the upper waters i.e. the water found in the atmosphere. On the third day G-d pulled the waters back to reveal dry land and created all vegetation (yup, Tuesday is when cauliflower, sprouts, and lima beans appeared on Mother Earth). On the fourth day G-d created all the celestial bodies, including the sun, moon, and all the stars. On day five G-d created all the flying creatures and water-based creatures. He even blessed them that they should multiply and be fruitful.
The sixth day of creation is special because not only did G-d create all animals of the land on that day, He also created mankind in His image. This special gift gives us an infinite amount of abilities that are unique to man, such as the ability to create, to give to strangers (generally, animals only take care of their own), and the power of speech.
On the seventh day G-d ceased from all the work that He had done, and in order to emulate G-d we also rest on the Shabbos, and spend that time evaluating our week and seeing how we can grow in the coming one. G-d obviously didn’t need the rest, He didn’t feel worn out from a week of creation, but rather for us he ceased to work to help us understand the concept that there are two distinct modalities, working toward a goal, and experiencing the goal. Shabbos is a time where we experience the arrival at the spiritual locus of our week, and we can experience it fully, while still engaged in the creative process.
When G-d created Adam (the first human being), He gave him everything he needed and only asked one thing of him – that he not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man gave names to all the beasts and found no mate. After this experience, which taught man that without women he is totally lost, G-d created Eve (the first woman) out of one of Adam’s ribs. G-d didn’t create woman out of Adam’s head, lest she feel she could dominate him, nor out of his feet, lest he feel he could trample her. Instead, He created her out of his rib, right next to his heart, so that he would protect her, love her, and treat her with equality.
While still enjoying their honeymoon, Adam and Eve were led into sin by the serpent, which was the external representation of evil at that time. Through a manipulation technique still used by sleazy salesmen today, the snake enticed both Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. G-d punished them by making humans mortal, by giving women birthing pains and by forcing men to work for their sustenance (prior to that fully prepared pastries would grow on trees! Weight Watchers would have had a real crisis!)
Adam and Eve gave birth to two children, Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. They both decided to give gifts to G-d but, while Cain gave inferior fruit, Abel gave the best of his flocks. G-d accepted only Abel’s gift. (Quick lesson: G-d wants you to mean it when you give to Him, so save your week-old pancakes for your brother, and give to G-d with all your heart. He doesn’t need a lot, but He wants to see you putting up your best effort!). Cain got angry and jealous, and quickly became the world’s first murderer by killing his brother. Back then there were no good trial lawyers, and Cain had to deal directly with G-d, who didn’t take his excuses but rather told him that there are two paths one can take after sin – repent and be forgiven or don’t improve yourself and sin will constantly hound you.
The Torah then goes on to mention the ten generations of mankind from Adam until Noah. After that description, the Torah tells us how human beings lost all morality, and people did whatever they pleased. It got so bad that soon only Noah was righteous from his whole generation. Next week, will tell us more about where the world went (hint: think underwater) and more about Noah (hint: think above water), but before we stop, one last tidbit about Noah: he invented the plow, thus saving mankind billions of man-hours in the field planting by hand!
Quote of the Week: There is no greater poverty than ignorance. – Moshe Ben Ezra
Random Fact of the Week: Your thumbnail grows slower than any other fingernail!
Funny Line of the Week: A magician was driving down the road..then he turned into a drive way…
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,R’ Leiby Burnham