The conflict. . . . For the past four years, we at Union Temple have been presented with what I have called a “conflict of positive values.” There is profound meaning and good will informing each of these values, though together they present us with something of a conflict. By way of explanation, I will take the liberty of borrowing from my own words, which I originally wrote for a Bulletin article in October of 2012.
As the Brooklyn Jewish community has come together for Selichot services for the past five years, so too have we joined together in celebration of Simchat Torah, under the Arch at Grand Army Plaza. These have been wonderful events that we have shared with hundreds of our fellow Jews in the community. This year the celebration is Monday, October 24. So what’s the problem? The problem, or shall I say, the “conflict of positive values,” exists in the fact that for the Reform Movement, the celebration of Simchat Torah is SUNDAY night, October 23, not Monday night.
Here’s the story. . . . In the days of the Sanhedrin – the High Court in Jerusalem – Festivals and New Moons were officially declared by the Sanhedrin itself. The Court would base its declaration upon the testimony of two witnesses each month that they had observed the new moon. The declaration would be communicated by a series of torch signals beginning on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, proceeding to Mount Sartaba in Jericho, and on through the Jewish world. The chain would continue until the entire Diaspora; particularly the Jews of Babylonia, received notification. Eventually the system broke down because of mischief caused by the Samaritans, who began to wave torches on hilltops at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin sought to remedy the situation by instituting an additional day of observance for the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the ancient mindset, if the Festivals weren’t observed on the correct day, supplications to God wouldn’t work.
In the middle of the 4th Century of the Common Era, the Jewish calendar was fixed on the basis of astronomical calculations, and thus everyone was able to determine the exact days of New Moons and Festivals without being dependent upon the Sanhedrin. But many in the Diaspora communities maintained the practice of celebrating these extra days in deference to the previous custom, and in its own self-perception as being in galut – exile, outside of Eretz Yisrael. The custom remained this way until the 19th Century, when the early Reformers cast aside this practice, not only because of the reality of the calendar, but also in rejection of the notion that Diaspora communities are in “galut.”
Contemporary practice. . . . In our time, the Jewish world observes along the following lines. All Jews in Israel – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and what-have-you – observe these Festival days for one day. These include: The first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret), the first day of Passover, the seventh day of Passover, and Shavuot. Reform Jews outside of Israel also observe one day. Conservative and Orthodox, and other non-Reform Jews outside of Israel still observe that extra day of the Festivals. For the Sukkot Festival, it works out in the following way. Israeli Jews and Reform Jews both in and out of Israel celebrate the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei) as a holy day. Sukkot is celebrated for seven days. We also celebrate the eighth day after as a holy day. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, on 22 Tishrei. Eventually an additional holiday which is not technically part of Sukkot was been added to this day. This is Simchat Torah, Rejoicing in the Torah. It is characterized by circuits (hakafot) with the Torahs, and much dancing and rejoicing. The end of the Torah is read, and immediately the beginning as well, to begin the yearly cycle of studying the Torah. For Israelis and all Reform Jews, these two are conflated into one day of celebration: Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah. For non-Reform Jews outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on an additional ninth day (23 Tishrei).
Specific values in conflict. . . . For us at Union Temple, as a Reform congregation, our custom, as with the vast majority of other Reform congregations, has always been to celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on the 22nd of Tishrei (this year, Sunday night/Monday, October 23/24). However, many of our friends in the community will celebrate Shemini Atzeret on Sunday night/Monday, and then Simchat Torah on Monday night/Tuesday, October 24/25. That has always been the case. But these past few years, there have been public gatherings of Jews in our neighborhood at Grand Army Plaza to celebrate Simchat Torah, this year on Monday night, October 24. For us, the two values we considered were (1) remaining steadfast in our convictions as Reform Jews, and (2) K’lal Yisrael – participating in the larger Jewish community and pursuing solidarity with our Jewish friends and neighbors.
Our decision. . . . After deliberating this “conflict of positive values” with our Board of Trustees, we at Union Temple will go ahead and celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on Sunday night, October 23, with 7:00PM reception and 7:30PM service, including the Hakafot with the Torahs – circuits and dancing. Monday morning we will hold our Festival Morning service as usual, including the recitation of Yizkor. And then, on Monday evening at about 8:00, we will join our friends for additional dancing out at the Grand Army Plaza. We hope that you will attend BOTH these celebrations, as there can never be enough rejoicing in the Torah!
Please note that in keeping with our policy of inclusion, there will be chairs around Grand Army Plaza for those who prefer to sit down during the hoopla.
Sunday, October 23
7:00PM: Reception in our Sukkah
7:30PM: Festival Evening Service with Hakafot
Monday, October 24
10:30AM: Festival Morning Service, Yizkor
7:00-11:00PM: Hakafot with the Community at Grand Army Plaza. (Union Temple’s Hakafah will be approximately at 8:15PM.)
By the way, weather permitting, please feel free to come by between now and Tuesday to visit our beautiful new sukkah, put up by our Brotherhood, with members of our Sisterhood participating. It is just adjoining our building. In keeping with the commandment, bring a bite to eat in there too. And, our Friday evening after our Shabbat service, join us for the Oneg in there as well.
Union Temple Food Drive: Each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened cann
YOM KIPPUR – The 10th of Tishrei, the Day of Atonement.
We read in the Torah: The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial. . . you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Eternal your God. Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin. . . It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath. (Leviticus 23.26-32)
A Day of Fasting.
Yom Kippur, then, is commanded in the Torah as a day of fasting for those who have reached the age of responsibility for the mitzvot – age 13. There are indeed several additional days of fasting in traditional Jewish observance, which came about as Rabbinic injunctions. There is an entire Talmudic Tractate, in fact, devoted to fasts called – Ta’anit – the Fast.
TZOM KAL – “Have an easy fast.”
One of the greetings that we Jews offer each other before a fast day is: TZOM KAL – Have an easy fast. Of course, our intent is to wish each other well on that day, and a general wish for health and strength. On the other hand, it poses an interesting contradiction. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of self-denial, not only regarding the pleasures of eating and drinking, but also of sexual relations, and even wearing leather, a sign of good living. (That is why you might see many Jews in sneakers on Yom Kippur. While we, especially in New York, may associate sneakers with comfort, the intent on this day is actually just the opposite!) So why are we wishing it to be easy for each other? Doesn’t that miss the whole point? When we’re not preoccupied with the preparation of our meals for the day, we are in a better position to focus inward, as we consider our behavior and our relationships during the past year, and make amends with those we have hurt. We are commanded to focus all our powers of concentration inward toward our conscience; outward, toward our relationships with others and our responsibilities in the world; and upward, if you will, toward Heaven, in recognition of that which is infinitely beyond our own individual selves and our own personal concerns. While Jews have never much approved of self-flagellation, we do engage in this day of self-denial in order to plumb the depths of our hearts and spirits, and improve our behavior in the year to come.
Is this the fast that I desire?
Our Haftarah portion for Yom Kippur Morning is taken from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah reminds us that, while fasting is commanded, it cannot be enough. We cannot fast for a day and think that we have discharged our religious obligations. We have to practice compassion every day of the year, particularly toward those who are less fortunate. Thus the prophet admonishes:
This is the fast that I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke:
To let the oppressed go free;
And break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And you healing spring up quickly….
Union Temple Food Drive
In direct response to Isaiah’s admonition, each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened canned and boxed food to the temple this Yom Kippur and donate it to this drive. The drive will extend as well through Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, and all the time in between. There will be food baskets at the temple and when they are filled we will take the collections to the Food Pantry at CHIPS. Thank you for enabling all of us to perform this mitzvah together.
And so, in anticipation of Yom Kippur, I ask you to REMEMBER THE FOOD DRIVE, and for Yom Kippur I wish you a TZOM KAL!