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From the Rabbi's Study


The Middle Days


With the focus of the Festival of Sukkot on the first days and the excitement of being in the sukkah for the first time, and the last days, which culminate with the celebration of Simchat Torah, we often overlook the middle days of the holiday. While the first and last days are yom tov, holidays, the middle, intermediate, days are called hol ha-moed, the "non-holy days" of the festival. The tendency to overlook these middle days and use them to ready for the final days, Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah, is both unfortunate and shortsighted. Not only is there a special holiness to these middle days but there is also an intrinsic lesson in them. 

Our tradition implores us to appreciate the extraordinary. For example, we are given blessings to say when seeing great wonders, like hearing thunder and seeing lightening, or seeing a rainbow. But there is no blessing for an ordinary day, let alone a dank, gray, day. These middle days remind us that holiness is found in everyday life and not only in transcendent "religious" experiences. The holiness of these middle days is the holiness of regular life, rather than the eminent holiness of the extraordinary.

 The middle days of Sukkot are a gift and a blessing.  The nature of Sukkot is that each day is a holiday unto itself.  In Temple times, each day had its unique offerings and in our daily services, each day has its special prayers that are said on each individual day. In our prayers, we recognize the unique nature of each day.  As we go about our daily routine, we are reminded that there is something simply special about every day.

It is easy to overlook the beauty of the ordinary, while we scour the world for the exceptional, but these middle days encourage us to look for the beauty in the mundane. While these middle days are not festival days, they are still part of the festival and have a status as holy days.  That same dynamic is evident in our lives and our world. Often, we extol the exceptional at the cost of the ordinary. It is through these middle days that we learn to fully appreciate the normal and the regular and the blessings of each and every day. 

Moadim L'Simcha, with wishes of joy on the Holiday and Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein 

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Parallel But Different


As we have just concluded the celebration of Yom Kippur and begin a new year, it is interesting to note that according to the Mishna, there are four New Year's days that are celebrated. For us, the most prominent is the first of Tishrei which begins the calendar year as we know it. The second best known New Year's Day is the first of Nisan. According to the biblical calendar, Nisan is the first month of the year and all biblical dates are counted from the month of Nisan, hence Passover in the Book of Exodus is observed on the 15th of the first month and the holiday of Sukkot is the 15th of the seventh month. Interestingly, the day we know as Rosh Hashanah, in our Torah is called the first day of the seventh month. 

All this can lead to a bit of confusion, when we talk about a new year. When we count the months, we are counting according to our current calendar year which begins on the first day of the month of Tishrei. Still this parallel calendar offers us a unique insight into the nature of our Jewish holidays and the Jewish year. Both the first of Tishrei and the first of Nisan are known as New Year's days. On the tenth of each month is a significant day, the tenth of Tishrei is Yom Kippur and the tenth of Nisan was the first day the Passover lamb could be set aside for the Passover sacrifice. The 15th of Tishrei is the holiday of Sukkot and the 15th of Nisan is the festival of Passover. While the calendars seem to parallel each other, there is a unique difference in the nature of the holidays and the character of each calendar. 

Passover marks our redemption from Egypt. It is a particular Jewish holiday, which is nearly universally observed in some form by every Jewish household. Beginning with Chapter 12 in the Book of Exodus, when we are told that this month of Nisan is the first month of the year, we have an association with the redemption of the Jewish people, our ancestors from Egypt.

Tishrei is different. The first of Tishrei marks, according to our tradition, the birth of the world. It's not a uniquely Jewish celebration, but one that bonds all humanity. Our traditions teach us that in this season the entire world and all humanity is judged, not just the Jewish people. This universal spirit continues through the holiday of Sukkot.  As much as we celebrate God's care for the people of Israel in the desert on Sukkot, we also celebrate God who cares for the entire world. It is on Sukkot according to the Prophet Zechariah that the final redemption will occur, and all nations will come to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.

At this time of year many are keenly aware of their Jewishness, and the holidays help us feel a deeper connection to our Jewish roots. We also make greater attempt to return to Synagogue and in many ways our prayers are offered with greater fervor. All that is good, but our tradition also reminds us that we are not in this alone. As we ready ourselves for the holiday of Sukkot, we should be mindful that when we pray for rain, it's not just rain for the Jewish people but for the entire world, and when we ask for salvation, it's not a particular salvation but a universal one. Though Sukkot is still solely a Jewish holiday, it is a poignant time for us to remember the needs of the entire community and our place as a part of the larger world.

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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A Shabbat by Another Name


This Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is one of the special shabbatot that occurs throughout the Jewish year.  Like the Shabbat that comes before Passover, Shabbat Hagadol, this one has a special name. But there is a disagreement about the name of this Shabbat.  Some call it Shabbat Shuvah, and others call it, Shabbat T'shuvah.  Though the names differ, their similarity helps us understand the dynamic of this season and the pursuit of repentance.

The name Shabbat Shuvah literally means the Shabbat of Return, and it derives from the opening word of this week's haftarah, from the Book of Hosea, which begins, "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God; for you have stumbled in your sin." The prophet Hosea is urging the People of Israel to return to God and leave behind their sinful ways. In the haftarah, the prophet lets the people know that God is awaiting their return.  This message was chosen for this Shabbat because it captures the theme of the season, the people of Israel being called to return to God.

The origin of the name Shabbat T'shuvah, the Shabbat of Repentance, comes from the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which is known as Aseret Yemai Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. The Shabbat that falls in this period is therefore called Shabbat T'shuvah. During this period, including this Shabbat, we are meant to be focusing on repentance and readying ourselves for Yom Kippur, the day we seek atonement for our shortcomings.    

While there is a difference between returning and repenting, in essence they are the same.  T'shuvah, repentance, is an act of renewal. Once someone acknowledges his or her error, the person can express remorse and seek atonement and expiation for the sin.  The act of repentance is the attempt to seek forgiveness and return to a state of grace. The call of the prophet Hosea for Israel to return is an acknowledgement that such repentance is possible.  One can return from sin and God is not only waiting for that return but encouraging it.  

All this brings us to this Shabbat and the dynamic of repentance and return. During this period, we are called to repent, but the question persists will our effort be successful? Can God forgive us when we are having trouble forgiving ourselves?  The two names of this Shabbat send us a message. If we repent, God will receive us, and we will be able to return -- then it will truly be a Shabbat of Repentance and Return.

With wishes for a meaningful and peaceful Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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