The Succah of Peace

The Succah seems like such a straightforward, simple entity – four walls composed of any material that can withstand a routine wind and topped by schach, a covering that comes from anything that grows from the ground and has been detached. Nevertheless, the creative leniencies through which our Sages delineated the Succah deserve our attention for the critical lesson they contain.

Indeed, a kosher Succah requires but two walls built at a right angle, with a third (even partial wall consisting of a bare handbreadth) jutting out from one of the two existing walls. But even that third wall need not be flush against the one to which it is adjacent. It suffices that it be within a foot or so of the wall. This is the principle of lavud, by which empty spaces less than three handbreadths in size are considered non-existent, as if they are filled in. This is true of both walls and schach. So too the halachic constructs of gud asik mechitzta or gud achit mechitzta in which short walls are considered elongated up or down to meet their counterparts. Thus, a wall need not extend all the way to the floor or to the schach, depending on the size of the opening. (Consult your Rav for specifics.)

Similarly, schach that is disqualified for use will not invalidate a Succah if such schach is within four cubits of the wall which is then construed as a dofen akumah, a wall that is bent over and extends horizontally into the Succah. It is actually quite complicated, which begs the question: why did our Sages allow for this enfeebled Succah to pass muster? Why not just require four walls that are solid and stretch from ground to schach without any allowances for empty spaces?

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook pointed to the familiar expression of Succat Shlomecha, the “Succah of Your peace,” to explain this paradox. The Succah is the symbol of peace which we beseech Hashem to spread over us. Peace cannot be made through maintaining rigid absolutes but rather through forbearance, understanding and even compromise. Thus, peace does not always come with four intact walls. Sometimes, even partial peace is welcome. Even a diminished peace still has value.

Such a concept may not be relevant in politics or diplomacy – the good will of the enemy should not be assumed – but it is certainly the key to harmony in human relations. How can peace be achieved – within and among families, with neighbors and community members and erstwhile friends, between groups with different and sometimes conflicting ideas and values? We can look to the Succah for the answer.

Peace usually requires that we not insist on the unconditional surrender of the other side and accept that we cannot get everything we want. We can’t always have, and certainly do not require, four walls that will not bend, walls that surround us and keep out the world. We can make do with less, even two walls plus. That is the Succah of peace. Sometimes peace demands that we be a dofen akumah, a wall that is bent over. If we stand inflexibly – like a wall – on our positions and our interpretation of events, on every slight and insult, then no progress is possible. If all we perceive is our personal hurt and no effort is made to analyze our role or contribution to the conflict, then resolution is impossible. We should bend a little for peace.

Peace between people sometimes requires gud asik mechitzta – that we reach upward to someone we harmed even if we think they don’t care and didn’t take offense. Children should extend themselves to reconcile with parents, disciples with teachers, and young people with their elders.  Other times it demands gud achit mechitzta, thatwe reach down to someone we offended whom we consider (improperly, but nonetheless) below our level – even parents to children, teachers to students, and the elders to the young. Peace requires that extra effort.

And the most common application of this principle of peace-making is lavud, filling in the gap of less than three handbreadths. How often do people become estranged from each other because of small things, pettiness – a non-invitation, a disfavored seat at a simchah, a miscommunication or a misunderstanding, a cross word said in anger? In any dispute between parties, it is often the last “three handbreadths” of the argument, after everything else has been resolved, that is the stickiest and causes the strife to linger. Families can implode, marriages can fail, businesses can collapse, and communities can be torn asunder by this tiny fissure.

Our Sages taught us when that happens, just consider these last three handbreadths – the dying embers of ancient acrimony– as if it no longer exists. Look at the wall that is there or the schach that is extant. Look at what is present – the framework of a cordial and harmonious relationship – and disregard the small aperture that remains. Then, what once appeared to be a chasm will assume its true proportions and in due course be dismissed as irrelevant and soon forgotten.

The Succah of peace is Hashem’s gift to His people. If we bend a little, reach up or down as necessary, and let small differences disappear, we will see the good in each other and build a Jewish society worthy of our Creator’s faith in us.

Chag Sameach to all!

The Kotel and the Jews

     (Published today at Israelnationalnews.com)

The Yamim Noraim provide a momentary respite from the political and religious wars of the Jews. We turn inwardly and emphasize our commonality and shared bonds with all of Israel. Rest assured, the battles will resume on the day after, but one feud – the struggle over the “Kotel compromise” – deserves attention now because the holidays shed light on one overlooked aspect of the dispute.

      The government has been under legal and political pressure for years to set aside part of the Kotel complex for egalitarian prayer. Such has been supported by many non-Orthodox Jews and opposed by many Orthodox Jews. Let us stipulate the sincerity of all sides. Proponents genuinely believe that egalitarianism and pluralism are values, Western values to be sure. Some see the alienation of Diaspora Jews from Israel as linked to the continuation of the status quo. That is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence and the reports of those driven by their personal agendas and overlooks more obvious reasons. Certainly, there is a “live and let live” element to the demand. Anyone offended need not join a worship service that does not suit their religious sensibilities and thus all sides should be happy with a partition of the Kotel.

      Yet, the proposal has touched a raw nerve with much, if not most, of the Orthodox community. Partisans on the left perceive it in facile terms of maintaining “Orthodox hegemony,” but the passions aroused are based on substantive and profound considerations. It is even more than underscoring the hypocrisy of allowing mixed prayer in the shadow of the very place – the site of the destroyed Temples – from which the Talmud derived the necessity of separate prayer. The objections go to the heart of a conception of Jewish nationhood and mutual responsibility that threatens to be torn asunder.

      Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, in his classic address “Kol Dodi Dofek” (the Voice of My Beloved Knocks), pointed out that the covenant we enacted with God when we first entered the land of Israel as a nation made all Jews guarantors for each other. We have a shared fate and a shared destiny. Consequently, one Jew can discharge the obligations of other Jews in performing a mitzvah even if the former has already fulfilled that obligation. Similarly, and most importantly, the covenant also means that we are responsible for the sins of our fellow Jews if it is within our power to rebuke them. We are also bound to share the beauty of Torah and Mitzvot with all Jews, and we must all learn from each other.

      However strong is the sentiment for egalitarian prayer, even advocates can at least acknowledge that it was a deviation from historic Jewish practice from Temple times until today. When it was introduced in the late 18th century, it was introduced in full knowledge that it was reforming traditional Jewish practice, and intentionally so. Jews have since then built their houses of worship in according with their personal or communal preferences, even if not always according to the Torah. “These and those are the words of the living God” has never been applied to this dispute. Not everything every Jew says or does becomes “Jewish” by definition. No Jew or group of Jews is authorized to excise parts of the Torah or the halachah.

      On an individual or communal level, propriety and the norms of modern life require that we tolerate each other’s predilections. I can’t walk into a Conservative temple and demand the erection of a mechitzah. But the Kotel is a national sacred space, remnant of the Second Temple and the focal point of traditional Jewish prayer from time immemorial. It is not merely a historic site of general interest for tourists.

      Can’t there be one place on earth where the strivings of all Jews toward God reflect their ideal form, as the Psalmist wrote, “the young men and also (but not with) the maidens, the old men with the young men” (Tehillim 148:12)? Can’t there be one place in Israel where all Jews can concede that, whatever form their Judaism takes today, this was the tradition of Jews that kept us praying together as a nation? I have often witnessed Bar Mitzvah celebrations at the Kotel involving non-Orthodox Jews, with families gathered on either side of the Mechitza listening to the boy recite his blessings or read his Torah portion. There is nothing more beautiful. Is it wrong for parents to explain to their child, “at home we do what we do for our reasons, but this is how Jews have always prayed until modern times, and many still do”?

      The alternative, which sounds so pleasing on the surface, is to declare – have the Israeli government, indeed, declare – that we are not responsible to uplift or protect each other spiritually, it is unnecessary and even improper for Jews to ever pray together, and those most faithful to tradition have no right to propagate the truths of Torah or be aggrieved when its cherished norms are breached at the holiest places. It is tantamount to proclaiming that kiruv is passé and even offensive, and that the Israeli government is dedicated to richuk, to distancing Jews from Torah observance by mainstreaming violations of Jewish law. There would be nothing more divisive to the Jewish people than to partition the Kotel and announce to all, and not so subtly, that “Jews cannot even pray together anywhere because we are not one nation and lack a shared heritage.”

      A band of musical philosophers once sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” That is true for me, you and everyone. Perhaps, then, it is best not to want it. Yom Kippur, just like the Kotel, should unite all Jews and reflect our highest religious aspirations rather than the religious inferences of our own making. In so doing, we will inspire each other and strengthen the bonds of arevut¸ shared responsibility, with all Israel, even after the holidays.

       Gmar Chatima Tova to all!

(And please check out my latest book, “Repentance for Life” now available from Kodesh Press and at fine stores everywhere.)

Ask the Rabbi, Part 15

For almost two years, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. Here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com

How much significance should we place in eating the simanim foods and saying Yehi Ratzon on Rosh Hashana?  

This is not a trivial matter, as it based on an explicit recommendation of the Gemara (Masechet Kreitot 6a) and recorded in the Shulchan Aruch (583:1). Nonetheless, it should not be consigned to the realm of magic and mysticism, as if to say “eat these foods, recites these mantras and G-d will be fooled by your newfound piety.” That is not at all what this practice signifies.

When the Gemara states “simana milta” – that signs are matters of substance – it means that eating these foods on Rosh Hashanah are vivid reminders of the kedushat hayom, the unique holiness of Rosh Hashanah that is defined by din, judgment. We are quite conscious that at this time we are sitting in the dock and being judged by the King of Kings. Our future hangs in the balance.

It is not the eating of the foods or the recitation of the accompanying prayers that facilitate a good judgment. Rather, it is that eating these particular foods that allude, sometimes clearly and sometimes obliquely, to the various judgments that await us will be catalysts for our teshuvah, repentance, and our return to G-d. And the prayers cause us to focus on what is really important and what we most desire in life.

People err when they think that eating gourds, leeks, fenugreek or beets without sincere repentance can somehow influence G-d and change our fate. If we have not yet developed a taste for fenugreek, so be it. The essential point is that what we eat on the night of Rosh Hashanah (some say both nights) should inspire our sincere repentance. In effect, it is akin to the Pesach Seder, on which we also eat certain foods to evoke critical remembrances. This too is substantive, and understood properly, an important part of the Rosh Hashanah experience.

Is it proper to eat the meat of animals that were not treated humanely?   

It is hard to imagine anyone feeling comfortable sitting down at a table, reciting a berachah and proceeding to eat the meat of an animal that was treated inhumanely. And to the extent that animals are mistreated – raised in cramped quarters, overfed and force fed, with an existence that is nasty, brutish and short – elementary sensitivity and respect for G-d’s creatures should cause us to recoil from such consumption.

That being said, it is important to distinguish between maltreatment and other aspects of the processing of food that radical activists term “inhumane” but in fact is not. The classic example is shechitah which is falsely termed “inhumane” by activists opposed to the use of animals for food. This banner has been waved all too frequently and hypocritically by Jew haters across the world for well over a century, embraced by the Nazis and other Jew-hating governments in Europe and now has been reborn in several European countries as well.

Their insistence that animals need to be anesthetized or electronically stunned before being slaughtered is an ill-disguised anti-Jewish measure, an attempt to compel Jews either to violate halachah or emigrate. In the not-too-distant past, many of the societies that were exquisitely sensitive to the treatment of animals were often quite callous and sadistic to their resident Jews.

We should be leery of the motives of the activists. By the same token, we should be assiduous in doing our part in eliminating genuine mistreatment of animals and think twice about eating the meat of animals that we know are being treated inhumanely just for our pleasure.

Clueless in Kabul

Clueless Joe Biden’s reference to the United States’ humiliating Afghan surrender and retreat as an “extraordinary success” recalls George Bush’s much maligned “Mission Accomplished” banner from 2003, even if the mission of the ship that flew that banner was accomplished and Bush himself said “our mission continues.” Let’s see if the media lets Biden off the hook, easy to do because he answers press questions infrequently, reluctantly and somewhat incoherently, his representatives dissemble with impunity, and most journalists are his ideological soulmates.

It is a talent, to be sure. Biden could have termed the voyage of the Titanic an “extraordinary success” as well, affirming that “we always knew of potential icebergs and planned for them” and “the heroic crew saved more than 700 people of the 2200 passengers.” If Biden had been emperor of Japan in 1945, perhaps he would have labeled Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “urban renewal projects” while ignoring the devastating loss of life. Sometimes is just best to admit defeat, as Japan and Germany did, and as even the United States did after Vietnam. That is honorable, and enables the vanquished to learn lessons and draw conclusions. Putting a positive spin on a debacle is possible only for people who know they will not be held to account by government, media, or citizenry. It is unhelpful, even weirdly obsessive, the way the American media looks at everything through the prism of elections (2022, 2024) rather than focus on policies, solutions and achievements.

The bottom line is that the United States defeated the Taliban in 2001 and now the Taliban is back in power, with all their brutality and jihadist evil, and again with the capacity to threaten the US or shelter those who would. When American citizens are aghast and ashamed at the surrender, American allies are horrified and despondent, and American enemies are jubilant, it is a safe guess to say that America lost. And when that enemy is dressed in your own uniforms, carrying the weapons you left behind ($90 billion worth of weapons) and riding around in your own military vehicles, feigning that there was some glorious achievement in Afghanistan is delusional.

Biden often intones that the buck stops with him, but that buck actually just pauses momentarily for a photo op before being passed on to any number of more productive foils. Donald Trump is always a handy target; he might have signed an agreement with the Taliban but Biden has overridden every other Trump initiative, so why not this one? The intelligence community failed miserably, presumably the same community (“all seventeen agencies!”) that detected Russian meddling in the 2016 election and failed to detect the Arab terror of September 11, 2001. Notice, by the way, how within days after Biden cited intelligence shortcomings and the failures of his experts, this same intelligence community that bedeviled Trump with its timely leaks quickly leaked the conversation Biden had with Afghani president Ghani asking him to pretend that the situation in Afghanistan is stable and its military prepared. They will get you “seven ways from Sunday,” begging the question (perhaps answering it) of who are the most powerful actors in American politics. And the Afghan government and army come in for its share of blame too but shorn of American air support it forfeited any putative advantage it had over its enemies.

One way to avoid blame that has been increasingly popular is to wrap oneself in the glory of the troops, odd in this case, because many of the troops interviewed are angry and disheartened at the way the withdrawal process unfolded. Another way is to focus on one small element of the debacle – the evacuation of personnel – to the exclusion of everything else and claim that a success. Still another is to deflect, criticizing anyone who notes the chaotic retreat or the terrible loss of life by American forces put by their commander-in-chief in an impossibly insecure position by saying that critics “want to stay in Afghanistan forever!” Certainly, no one wants American troops stationed in a foreign country forever – it is not like Afghanistan is Germany, Japan or South Korea…  But changing the topic from the conduct of the withdrawal to the fact of the withdrawal is a shallow rhetorical trick that is only sustained through repetition each time it is pointed out.

And there is one other way that Biden avoids accountability – donning the mantle of mourning. It has become unseemly and manipulative for Clueless Joe to constantly invoke the memory of his late son Beau, and especially pretending somehow that Beau died in combat. It seems it is done less to be empathetic and more to immunize him against any criticism. But parading one’s old bereavement in the face of the newly bereaved is cynical and selfish unless the mourners request it. Many of the military families whose loved ones were killed in the last week found it off-putting, and Biden tone deaf or, perhaps, just clueless.

That exploitation of mourning is unbearably cynical. Looking back at a more dignified era and more dignified individuals, George H. W. Bush lost his young daughter to leukemia when she was four years old. It was certainly a traumatic event, one which even seventy years later he would recall only with tears. But I do not remember Bush (or his son the president, who lost his younger sister) ever once using it for political and manipulative purposes, referring to the loss in speech after speech in the hopes of shielding himself from criticism. I don’t remember it because it never happened. And I do not doubt that Biden does it because it tests well in polls and is thus entered into the teleprompter that he haltingly reads.

Biden and his inadequacies has become an object of pity across the world. America deserves better but it is not readily apparent how the situation can change. There will be a scapegoat; my bet is that General Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs, finds his way soon to early retirement. It is still inconceivable that Biden can last four years as president but his successor is even more problematic – incompetence exacerbated by arrogance and identity politics. The US looks weak because, sadly, it is weak, with a feckless leadership addicted to printing and spending money, making inane pronouncements and incapable of resolving any societal problem. Wrapping itself in the flag will not deter evildoers across the globe and may just encourage them.

On Rosh Hashanah, the fate of all individuals is decreed, as well as the fate of nations. “Which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which for abundance?” The world has endured a rocky road in the last year. May this year and its curses come to an end, and may the New Year be filled with blessings for the deserving, those amenable to G-d’s morality and kindnesses.