A tale of two sermons

A tale of two sermons

A few years ago, on the first day of Sukkot, Rabbi Yosef Adler delivered this sermon at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, where he serves as spiritual leader:

“During the Sukkot holiday, in birkhat hamazon, our blessing after meals, we recite the following prayer: ‘Harahamon hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofelet,’ ‘May Hashem establish for us the fallen sukkah of David.’

Why the image of a fallen sukkah for the Davidic kingdom, he asked. Why not a castle or some other sturdy structure?

Rabbi Adler expounded on an explanation first offered by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, zt’l, who recently had died. When a house collapses, the new structure that replaces it is never the same. It is something different. Not so the sukkah. Every year, after Simchat Torah, we dismantle the sukkah and store it in our garage. The following year, immediately after Yom Kippur, we take it out and rebuild it. We may replace a cracked panel, our children may add new decorations, but the sukkah remains.

So too with Judaism, Rabbi Adler concluded. We may be exiled to the far reaches of the earth, to strange lands in strange times, but our devotion to Jewish law remains steadfast. The sukkah – that is, the laws of sukkah – does not change. Each year the sukkah returns to its original essence. The secret of our survival lies in our fealty to Jewish tradition.

The following morning, on the second day of Sukkot, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky delivered this sermon at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, where he serves as spiritual leader:

“‘May the All-Merciful establish for us the fallen sukkah of David.’ Why the metaphor of a sukkah? Why not a castle?”

Rabbi Pitkowsky, again citing Rav Amital, continued: A building may look permanent but it is not. Like empires, it ends. But a sukkah can be rebuilt in different times and places. We may select different materials and it may come in different styles and dimensions but the essential laws that turn a shack into a sukkah, primarily the roof, or schach, remain the same. So long as we hold onto our essence, the Jewish people, like a sukkah, can adapt to history’s violent storms.

One sermon in two days, delivered three blocks apart. There are a number of possible lessons to be learned:

1. Stick to one shul. If you don’t, you may find yourself listening to the same sermon day after day.

2. Move around. Seeing how different congregations celebrate our festivals and hearing what they have to say may provide a depth of insight that one-eyed viewing does not. A sermon becomes sharper when delivered in different venues, its imbedded values more evident. At Rinat Yisrael, an Orthodox congregation led by Rabbi Adler since its founding in 1979, the sermon underlined the continuity of Jewish law. At Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation founded in 1952 and led by Rabbi Pitkowsky since 2011, the sermon addressed the tension between tradition and change, with which that denomination long has grappled.

Worshipping in a synagogue affiliated with another denomination will not necessarily lead to a kumbaya moment. On the contrary, the experience can be jarring. One emerges from the “other” synagogue with deeper appreciation of the often profound differences that synagogues, Jewish law, and God play in people’s lives. This can be a good thing. Unspoken assumptions are highlighted and preconceived notions are challenged. Sometimes, you better understand your own by going somewhere else.

3. Yehuda Amital’s life (1924-2010) and teachings are worthy of our study. Romanian-born, Amital was the sole Holocaust survivor in his family. As a teenager in a forced labor camp, he swore that if he survived, he would study Torah in Jerusalem. He made his way there after liberation and attended Hevron Yeshiva, a leading charedi institution. The day after Israel declared independence, a Shabbat, Amital enlisted in the IDF, and later he fought in Latrun and the Galilee. While savoring Jewish self-defense in the shadow of the Holocaust, he urged religious soldiers to sanctify God’s name by upright behavior. After the Six Day War, Rav Amital founded Yeshivat Har Etzion, helped build it into one of Israel’s most innovative institutions, and inspired a generation of religious Zionists.

4. Two synagogues, three blocks apart, each with membership numbering in the hundreds, generally are unaware of each other. As things now stand, on Shabbat and holidays, these two communities often pass each other with nary a nod, like dark matter through our bodies, undetectable except with the most sensitive of instruments. The diminishing openness to other Jews, not to mention other observant and believing Jews, diminishes us all. It does not bode well for our, and Israel’s, future. If nothing else, think of all the time that could be saved if the rabbis worked on their sermons together!

5. In recent years, the divisions among the various streams of American Judaism have been highlighted. It takes an extraordinary teacher like Rav Amital, zt’l, to remind us how much we share. Surely this is the first step to re-establishing the fallen sukkah of David.