Today marks a double celebration of our Jewish heritage. It is the first Shabbat after the Yom Kippur high holiday and the Book of Life has now re-opened. May it be a year filled with many simchas, good news, good health and prosperity for us all.
It is also the beginning of an exciting, fun-filled week, beginning with Sukkot and ending with Shmini Atseret and Simchat Torah.
But that’s not all! Here in Annapolis, it’s a quadruple play! In addition to Shabbat and the Sukkot holiday, we also get to experience two more celebrations this week. Our waters are filled with 600 of the world’s most beautiful and elegant sailing ships as we prepare for the 37th annual U.S. Sailboat show. It is only fitting that this falls on Columbus Day weekend, one of the most celebrated sailors of all time. In 1492, Christopher Columbus left Spain on a journey that would take him, his crew and his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria to a part of the world yet undiscovered. Intending to find a new route to India and the Far East in search of spices and silks, Columbus mistakenly discovered the New World, landing instead on the shores of what is now known as America.
In a way, Columbus was also the El-Al airlines of his days, transporting the Jews and others across the seas to America. Of course, this was not a pleasant ride for the stowaway Jews, expelled from their homes in Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. There is some historical evidence that even suggests that Christopher Columbus himself, may have been a hidden Jew.
So what do we make of all these celebrations? How do we connect all the dots here? Well, I have my own theory, what I will refer to as the real Columbus Circle!
In the spirit of an imaginary fantasy during the Sukkot holiday, we would welcome Christopher Columbus into our Knesset Israel community and provide a delicious Kosher meal inside our sukkah. He would watch us shaking the four species in all directions, symbolic of bringing together all the corners of the world he would yearn to explore. Then we would walk along the waters with him to view the sailboat exhibition, where he would be toasted as the ultimate mariner.
Sukkot is a time of hospitality. Certainly, the sukkah is a symbol of enjoyment, entertainment and fun. It provides us a getaway from the everyday to share with friends and family. We get to unwind and pretend we are our forefathers and foremothers living outside, under the stars. It is the family room where we gather to relish the wonders of the outdoors. It is a multi-sensory, spiritual experience. We hear the birds chirping around us – and even the rain as it drops from the skies onto our leaf-covered ceilings. We can feel the cold on our hands and faces as the wind blows gently through the sukkah. We enjoy the flavor of delicious, tasty dishes as we sit with our families and friends around the table telling great stories and singing songs. We can smell the pristine, crispness in the autumn air, as the vibrant, colored leaves fall all around us. It is G-d’s way of telling us to take a break from our everyday lives, relax and enjoy the renewal of life. We take these next seven days to reflect on the beauty that surrounds us. It is a time for rejuvenation.
While the rainy weather may be a little disappointing, there is still much for which to be grateful. Bad weather may prevent us from fully enjoying the sukkah from the inside for a short time, however, let’s look at all the other aspects of it, aside from dining.
In the last week, we prepared for Sukkot by gathering the materials for the sukkah. Both children and adults created beautiful decorations, from stringing paper chains to coloring pictures and the strong and able-bodied constructed the building. The preparation was all about participation and unity. It’s no different than the boat show. We may not be able to enjoy the display during a downpour, but there are still thousands of people gathering together for celebrations and parties, sharing each others company inside a hotel, or someone’s home, maybe even inside the boats! As they say, the show must go on. In Judaism we believe that if you think good, it will be good. While we may pray for sunshine, there will still be a tremendous benefit from whatever comes. Just ask Rod Stewart, the singer who is making an incredible comeback with his new album, "Still the Same: Great Rock Classics of Our Time." The first single to come out of this great collection of songs is "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" By the end of Sukkot, we will all be able to answer "yes."
Sukkot is all about communing with people under one roof. Another famous singer, Barbara Streisand, who is best known for her song about how much people need people, will perform Monday night at Madison Square Garden to a sold-out concert, where tickets are being auctioned on e-bay for a much as $1200 a seat. Friends of mine were able to get tickets early for $250. Quite a bargain in retrospect!
In another ironic turn of events, I read two articles in the new October issue of What’s Up Annapolis? that caused me to reflect on the Sukkot holiday. Guess who the author of the first article is? Janice Booth! Really, her last name is Booth. Isn’t it amazing how everything is connected? As you know, Sukkot is also known as the holiday of booths, so there is no mistaking this as mere coincidence.
The first article by Ms. Booth was about selecting a new home, what to look for and how important the decision is. One of the main themes of the Sukkot holiday is the historical connection we have to our ancestors who lived in huts while wandering the desert. The significance of a home is much more than how many bedrooms or bathrooms are contained in it. It is also the hospitality of the owners that makes a house a home. That is what Sukkot is all about.
In another fascinating article in the same magazine, entitled, "Pads for Pets," the author discusses the enhanced designs and technology that can be found in houses for our pets. From elaborate dog houses to kitty condos, there is a range of options that is hard to believe. These pampered pets can lounge around all day in their own houses that can be designed to be a miniature version of the family home. Dogs can now be sheltered in structures that resemble log cabins, igloos, castles and fairy cottages. This puts a whole new twist on someone being in the dog house, doesn’t it?
Companies like Petco are offering palatial cat towers to hide and play in. At Classypetshop.com, customers can order insulated cedar cabins complete with decks or lofts in a single duplex or town home. Cozy cat furniture offers indoor cat castles and outdoor cat bungalows, with or without furniture. The cost for this extravagance runs on the average of $200 to $500.
So what’s the connection to the Sukkah? Well for starters, the same $200 to $500 can buy a decent Sukkah, from wood planks to canvas sukkahs to modular sukkahs. The sukkah, no different than the pet shelters, all represent individual tastes of a family. I’m not saying that you have to spend a fortune on an elaborate sukkah. I’m saying that whatever you put into the sukkah, will pay for itself in terms of family unity, spiritual enrichment and sharing the meaning of sukkah with friends. Mahari Weil a renowned Jewish philosopher state that "by fulfilling the mitzvah of sukkah, one becomes a partner in G-d’s creation of the world." In the Zohar, the mystical teachings of Judaism, states, "Whoever sits in the shade of the sukkah, the divine presence will embrace him." A good reason to step foot into our synagogue Sukkah.
It seems that G-d not only wants us to have this outdoor, transcendental experience, where we can learn many valuable lessons, but He also wants us to discover a new appreciation for our own surroundings. On a very spiritual level we recognize that everything is transient and the permanence of our lives, even our homes, may be fleeting. Keeping this in mind, we learn that every day is a gift and must be lived fully.
The Sukkah also inspires the need for community and unification. Decorating and building the Sukkah is an annual event that we here at Knesset Israel really look forward to. We get to plan and coordinate with all the different parts of our congregation before the holiday. With everyone participating in some aspect, Sukkot becomes the glue that holds us together and keeps us strong.
Like the driving force behind Christopher Columbus, most of us have a natural curiosity for the unknown. We like to discover new things, experience exotic situations and adventures, vacation in remote get-aways. The Sukkah allows us to do all of that as it is a symbol of a time thousands of years ago, experienced by Jews throughout the generations. We get a chance to experience life in the desert, a simple, uncomplicated living environment with the added dimension of living on the edge. The tradition is meant to be an experience that is deeply meaningful and uplifting.
Speaking about living on the edge, I recently had the opportunity to view the new Neiman Marcus Holiday Gift Catalog, which is filled with some very exclusive offers. For several hundreds of thousands of dollars a person can be transported on a mission to outer space. For the right price, the customer can purchase a 2007 BMW convertible and many other premium items. People just love going beyond the ordinary; the exact reason that Columbus went in search of a better route to finding gold and spices and silk. That’s why brave sailors are tempted by the big seas. That’s why we, as Jews, go into the sukkah, stepping out of our routine into a time of communal in-gathering. We wine, dine and laugh, tell stories and invite people to join us in a display of gracious hospitality. This long-standing tradition of being hospitable by inviting guests into our sukkah to partake of our food, stems back to the time of Avraham and Sarah, the first hebrews.
Today, while in the Sukkah, we take the time to summon the spirits of the Ushpizin, the matriarchs and patriarchs of our nation. We invite their spirits through special prayers. On a deeply mystical level their presence connects us to generations past. The same way we take the four species and connect the lulav to the esrog with the willow and myrtle branches, holding them together, uniting the forces in all direction, north-south-east and west as it states in the Bible. There have been many books written about the symbolic wisdom represented by the four species. The act is a deeply philosophical one that promotes togetherness in society.
I would like to encourage everyone here to invite guests into our Knesset Israel tent.
A very interesting article in USA TODAY related a story about a famous restaurant owner who was lauded for being the ultimate Maitre’d. His key to success, he claims, is his willingness to please the customer. In one example of ultimate hospitality, a woman customer came to his restaurant only to discover that her purse, her wallet and her cell phone were left in the cab. She panicked when she realized the loss. The restaurant owner told her to calm down and order whatever she wanted at no charge. He then called her cell phone which was answered by the taxi driver. Miraculously, all her possessions were returned, in fact, fifteen minutes later. She was never charged a penny. The Maitre d believes that all his guests should be treated as royalty.
G-d is the ultimate maitre’d of the universe and we are his guests. He wants us to enjoy his creations and serve us. Therefore, he has given us the Torah, the holidays and the wonders to benefit us. Just as we are made in his image, so too, should we be gracious to our own guests.
On behalf of the entire Knesset Israel family, I want to thank all of those people who worked so hard to make our beautiful sukkah outside the sanctuary. Please make every effort to stop by and enjoy the Kiddush in the sukkah andsheap nachas from being part of the holiday experience. May we have many fun, exciting and explorations adventures in life.