Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yump a Dum

Parshat Berayshit
א( בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
When God began to create the Heaven and the Earth

A. For the passage does not come to teach us the order of the acts of creation, to say that heaven and earth came first... You must admit (based on his extensive language comparison of similar texts) that Scripture does not teach us anything about the order of the earlier or later acts of creation. [Rashi on Gen. 1:1 ]

B. Why are et and v’et needed? Nachum Ish Gamzu expounded: “If shemayim v’aretz alone were stated I might have said that shamayim and v’aretz were the names of the Holy One blessed be He, but et hashamayim v’et haaretz indicates that each is a created entity in itself. [Torah Temimah on Gen. 1:1]

C. The opening chapters of Genesis are not a scientific account of the origins of the universe. The Torah is a book of morality not cosmology. Its overriding concern, from the first verse to the last is our relationship to God, truth about life rather than scientific truths. It describes the world God fashioned as “good,” a statement no scientific account can make. [Harold Kushner, commentary on Genesis in Etz Hayim p.3]

D. As Rambam notes, even after reading how the world and its central character, Man, came into being, we still do not understand the secret or even the process of Creation. Rather, the work of Creation is a deep mystery that can be comprehended only through the tradition transmitted by God to Moses, and those who are privileged to be entrusted with this hidden knowledge are not permitted to reveal it. [The Humash, The Stone Edition, commentary on Genesis Chapter 1 p.2]

E. Smoothly, powerfully, and seamlessly, the text … produces several theological meanings: that Elohim alone, “at the beginning” created a good ordered world; that He “separated” and hierarchically ordered the primordial mass into a “good” pattern; that the created world of nature is, as a result, a harmony; and that Elohim is omnipotent and without rival. The clarity of this account … seems to leave no room for the existential sense of “mystery in general” … and yet, Rashi, … begins … with the words, “This text is nothing if not mysterious” … what emerges from Rashi’s provocative statement is a sense of the gaps, the unexplained, the need to examine and reexamine the apparently lucid text, with its account of a harmonious, coherent cosmology. There is a tension between the benevolent clarity and power of the narrative and the acknowledgment of mystery that inheres in the very first word and that develops as the implications of the beginning are realized. [Aviva Zornberg, Genesis, the Beginning of Desire p.3]

1. Is the Torah’s account of Creation true?

2. Why does the Torah begin with the account of creation? Where else could it have started? What is the creation text trying to teach us?

3. Some say that we should translate all that God creates as proper nouns, names, not of things in nature, but the names of Pagan gods. How would this change the way we understand this text? What would be the reason for the creation story?

4. What does the text teach us about evolution and the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe? Is there a literal translation of this text that really does contradict science, or are the “creationists” misreading the text? Is this a deliberate misreading or is there some other reason for their interpretation?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Only The Beginning

Installation speech
I do want to begin by thanking some very special people. I first of all, want to thank Bernie Morwitz and the installation committee, as well as the hospitality committee for making this day so special. I also need to thank the officers, board members and staff of Temple Emeth for their warm welcome and their ongoing advice and support. And most of all I want to thank all of you, the members of Temple Emeth for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful family.

It is necessary to mention how interconnected we all are to the larger Jewish World. The road that brought me here began with two very special teachers, Rabbi Mark Loeb of Baltimore, who passed away suddenly just last week, and Professor Richard Freedman of the University of GA in Athens. They took the time to teach a group of USYers at Camp Blue Star and I was honored to be in that group. That week of learning with them began a line of thinking that led me to Rabbinical School and ultimately to this congregation. I am proud to be an alumnus of Florida Atlantic University as well as the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. My teachers and Rabbis at these institutions gave me the tools that I use every day as a Conservative Rabbi. I want to thank also those congregations where I have served in the past. Beth Torah of North Miami Beach, Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, The Sunrise Jewish Center, Temple Sinai in Hollywood, Florida and Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, MN. I was their teacher, but they also taught me valuable lessons that helped my Rabbinate mature. I also thank my colleagues at the Rabbinical Assembly for helping me each day as a Rabbi, for connecting me to my colleagues all over the world, and for their assistance in the search that brought me to Delray Beach.

We are beginning a new era in the history of Temple Emeth. As we all know, beginnings are hard. According to the laws of Physics, things at rest tend to remain at rest until acted on by another force. There are those who say that Conservative Judaism has been at rest for far too long. We were once the largest Jewish denomination in this country, now, the demographers tell us we are shrinking and aging. If this is true, then it is not because we no longer have anything important to say to the American Jewish community. There is a great deal that is important in our Movement and though it may seem to require a great force to get us moving, together, we can create a meaningful religious experience that will have a profound effect on each of us, our community, our country and on the Jewish People.

I have to tell you, it has been most impressive to me what Temple Emeth accomplishes every day. Our building is a hub of activity from early in the morning until late in the afternoon. The planning of events, classes, and activities is only exceeded by those who are working hard to make these programs happen. We cook, set up, advertise, sell tickets and arrange seating before the event even begins. Our parking lot is often full with members and guests arriving for programs and seminars, dances and shows. We truly are one of the important centers here in Delray Beach.

But the Sun Sentinel, just a couple of weeks ago, in a front page story, reveals how our community is changing. Jews, who once came to South Florida to live in the vast condominium complexes here, now choose to live in single family homes in large gated communities. Jews who once came to synagogue for social and communal events now center their social activities around a vast array of entertainment centers. At any given moment there are hundreds of restaurants, dozens of movies and a variety of shows all over South Palm Beach County. But why leave home? The internet brings us movies, education and information with the click of a mouse. Cable Television has hundreds of channels addressing every imaginable interest a person may have. All of us remember when Jews were excluded from communal life. Today, there is hardly a place that would turn any paying customer away.

That leaves us, Temple Emeth, and all synagogues, as quaint vestiges of a past life, when shul was the place to meet friends, make business contacts, and learn about the many facets of Jewish life. I know that there are many here at Temple Emeth who are put off by computers and the internet. But I suspect that there are far more technologically savvy seniors in our congregation who use the internet to stay in touch with children and grandchildren, reading their email, seeing their faces on Skype and sharing pictures on Facebook. Like it or not, computers and instant messages are the way the world communicates.

My grandparents lived in a small apartment where we grandchildren could visit and enjoy the best Jewish cooking and hear stories of how they came to this country. Most of my friends here at Temple Emeth prefer to eat out for dinner, work out at the clubhouse gym and go out bargain hunting at the Flea Market and Mall. It is a very active life my grandparents would not recognize. But today’s new seniors are even more active. Forget golf and tennis, they go skiing in Colorado, they fly to New York to visit their grandchildren, book their own travel on their computers and stay in touch with the family with cell phones and Facebook. When they go on a cruise, it is not to sit on the deck and watch the scenery; they are kayaking down rivers, climbing through mountain caves and diving on tropical coral reefs. I have yet to see a Synagogue sponsor a dive trip either to the Florida Keys or to the magnificent coral reefs of Israel and the Red Sea.

And that tells us how far we have to go. We need a strong presence on the Internet, both with a website to show how much fun we have here at Temple Emeth, and on Facebook where we can stay in touch with our members and reach out to the larger community. I know, there is a lot of garbage on the Internet, but we need to have a presence that stands up and above the rest of the noise. As my daughter often says, “If we don’t have a web presence, we don’t really exist.” Last week our IT committee met and we began to chart a new course in the frontier of cyberspace.

Our programming is top notch when it comes to seniors over the age of 70. Our activities are the envy of synagogues across the country. But when it comes to those under 70, the newly retired and the empty nesters, our calendar of activities are all but empty. We hardly address their concerns about retirement investing, finding spiritual meaning in life and providing entrances into serious Jewish learning. At a time when their life is changing rapidly, their children have moved out, they have a successful business and are at the top of their field; we find them asking questions about the meaning of their life and how they can make a difference in the world. Many 50 and 60 year olds today have spiritual questions and they look to their Judaism to help them find the answers. We will need to address these needs.

Behind them are the 40 year olds. They are not looking forward yet to retirement. Believe it or not, they are the parents of pre-school children! They will not be empty nesters when they are in their 50’s. They will be taking their teenagers to football practice and to driving lessons. They will be paying for College and Graduate school in their 60’s and only thinking about retirement as they approach 70! Temple Emeth has many seniors over 70 who have been retired now 20 years. Imagine if you were just starting retirement now! For a synagogue, looking to its future, the next 30 years are going to be unlike anything we have ever seen.

In just 30 years, Judaism will enter the year 5800. What will life be like 30 years from now? If I knew, I would be telling you which stocks to pick to make yourself rich. I only know for sure that the world is still changing, and that Judaism, as an island of tradition and a force for meaning, will still be here. I know that because we at Temple Emeth will enter that future prepared to give it our best.

It has been the long range vision of the leadership here at Temple Emeth that has brought these issues forward to debate and to ponder the future of our congregation. It is also the vision that has brought me to this community. To reinforce the extraordinary programs we continue to offer, and to create new ways to reach the next generation of Jews. I don’t know if the future will be easy or difficult, I only know that together we will face that future so that the Judaism that we know and love will be the faith that future generations will know and love as well. We enjoy this building, our services and our classes because those who came before us built Temple Emeth on a sure foundation of Jewish tradition and modern sensibilities. It will be here for future generations if we take the time to build for them as our ancestors built for us. Synagogues should not be dying, Jews should be clamoring to join. The future should not be about or fear of change, but we should look to the future as a place where our accomplishments will be the foundation upon which the next generation will build a Judaism for the 21st century and beyond.

So let me conclude with one final thank you. I want to make sure that before this program ends, I thank God, who has kept me in this life, educated and sustained me, and brought me to this extraordinary community called Temple Emeth. Shehechiyanu, Amen

Monday, October 12, 2009

School Days

Shemini Atzeret 2009

Hag Sameach

Do you know what a “master class” is? It is not a college course for an advanced degree. It is a seminar, or a series of seminars that are designed for those who are already at the top of their field; artists or musicians, doctors or lawyers, teachers or businessmen and women. A master class is for all those who have excelled in their field and want to expand their knowledge beyond the conventional.

Teachers from the pinnacle of the field, the most innovative and respected; offer these master classes to those who would wish to follow in their footsteps. The assumption of the class is that all the students have already mastered the basics of their field. They have already succeeded in the normal sense of the word. A master class will not go over the basics, proficiency in the topic is assumed by all who are in the class. The teacher will show the students how to raise their skills even higher; to become artists in one’s chosen field, with all the creative and innovative talent implied.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, the Dean of the Rabbinical School at American Jewish University, recently wrote that we all should think about our life as a master class. This does not mean that we are exempt from the basics. In Judaism, this means we need to learn Torah and History, Hebrew and philosophy, Prayer and Mitzvot. These are the basics that are assumed in our master class. If we need work in these basic areas, we should not let the year go by without finding the proper seminars to help us gain proficiency in the areas that make up the foundation of our religion and our faith.

But if we are already beyond the basics, there are still important lessons to be learned. The first lesson is that real learning comes not from just reading or hearing the words of a teacher, but in encountering and engaging our teacher. To hear the passion in the voice, the authenticity in the lessons and to open our hearts to the truth that underlies the lessons. The deepest lessons in life do not come from following in the footsteps of a master teacher, but in creating new lessons from the experiences in your own life. What is it that we can bring into our life that no one else can bring? We can not be clones of our teacher, but we use their wisdom to make our lives a life without precedent. My teachers would constantly remind us that we should not despair that the great teachers of Torah and Talmud lived in previous generations. We should not be concerned that compared to their genius, they were giants and we are but dwarfs. My teachers in rabbinical school taught us that there is a way for a dwarf to see beyond the vision of a giant. The dwarf need only stand on the giant’s shoulders. So too we who do not see ourselves as intellectual equals of the Sages of long ago, we can see beyond their horizon if we but stand on their shoulders and build our vision upon theirs.

The next level, in the master class of life, teaches us that with learning and living comes great responsibility. We can’t live our lives only for ourselves; we need to open our hearts to others. Will we stand in prayer and only pray that God forgives our sins? Or will we also pray fervently for God to forgive the sins of others who are in need of forgiveness? There is a story of Rabbi Meir who was being harassed by a gang of hoodlums. He prayed that they should die. It didn’t help. His wife, who was so much wiser said, “Pray instead that they should repent.” Rabbi Meir did pray on their behalf and they did repent. We need to rise beyond our own needs and pray for the welfare of others. Our future is always tied to the future of others. We don’t label the “others” in life; we do all we can do to help to bring their lives to a higher level with us.

Finally, we live in an age where it seems that religious people are being asked to submit to the will of God. We are told that true religious people negate their own needs and submit to what they think God is asking of them. Every detail of the law is exceedingly important. Anyone who violates a single precept is an infidel, an apostate or worse. Obedience is the prime directive. But those who aspire to a deeper understanding of life know that life is fluid and opportunity is everywhere. We use our Judaism to paint with a multicolored pallet so that all the majesty and splendor of life will become apparent. There are passages in the Torah and in the Bible that do not make us proud. We like to think of the Torah as a document of love and understanding. Sometimes, however, Torah is not so loving. It has passages that tell us to hate people, and to kill those who do not agree with us. Are we required to teach such verses because they are in the Torah or are we prepared to refuse to teach them, to refuse to further spread their message of hate and intolerance? We must not justify what is hateful just because we think this is the word of God. We must use every tool we can find to turn that hatred into new ways to love each other.

The theory of life as a Master Class is beautiful and inspiring. But who will be the teacher who can give us such gifts? I would venture to say that we already know such teachers in our lives. They are the ones who came before us and gave us, through their words and deeds the very essence of who we are today. These are the people who we remember this day, at this hour of Yizkor.

Perhaps some of us here today are here out of a sense of duty. That after all, these were our parents, our loved ones, and we carry the Jewish obligation to pray at Yizkor in their memory. I understand that sense of duty and I share with you your devotion to the performance of this sacred responsibility. But there are other important reasons to be here this morning, at this hour of memory. This day can be our testimony, our monument, to the faith and meaning our loved ones brought into our lives. Through the lessons we learned at their sides, as well as the lessons we learned when we examined their lives, our lives are richer, deeper and better.

We have a choice at this junction in our lives. We can remember what we have lost and be sad, or we can recall what we have learned and be grateful and maybe even a little happy that the ones we remember today passed through this life and were our mentors and master teachers.

Poet David Harkins in his poem “Remember Me” penned these words:
You can shed tears that he is gone, or you can smile because he has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back, or you can open our eyes and see all that she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him, or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live for yesterday, or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she’s gone, or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back, or you can do what he’d want, smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Life is a Master Class and some of our greatest teachers were those who shared with us precious time from the short number of years we are all allotted. Maybe we now have new teachers who continue to guide us through the many shoals of life. But it is those we remember today who are the teachers that first took us beyond the level of basics and fundamentals. They showed us how to really use the sacred time of life so that we could not only live a life of blessing but showed us how we can pass those blessings on to those who will remain when it is our time to go.

This is the ultimate honor we can give our beloved dead. Not to merely pass on the lessons we learned at their side, but to take those lessons and, with an artist’s loving hand, embellish it, color it and beautify it through our own life experiences so that our lives too will testify to a life lived with love of self, love of others and love of God.

May the examples of those we remember today be a blessing to us. May their lives serve as an example in our own lives. May our examination of their lives help us to examine and refine our own lives. And may their teachings serve as the foundation to the Torah that we are writing with the deeds we perform each day. May the memories we honor today help lead us to serve, as they served, our God with faith and with Love.

Amen and Hag Sameach.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In the Still of the Night

Second Day of Sukkot

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

My family never had a Sukkah when I was a child. It never occurred to my father or my grandfather to have a Sukkah at our home. We ate our meals, as usual, in the dining room. We were not in school on Sukkot. We were in synagogue on the first days of the holiday. We waved the lulav and etrog with the congregation, but we never had a Sukkah in our home.

Even when we were at the synagogue, we would have some cake and juice in the community Sukkah but we had lunch at home. When I was in the Boy Scouts, we built a Sukkah for the synagogue without using nails. We cut down trees ourselves and lashed them together. It was a work of art. When I was in USY, we got together again to build the Sukkah for the synagogue. That Sukkah was not a work of art, I felt good that it didn’t fall down but it came close a couple of times. But I never built a Sukkah at my home.

For my third year of Rabbinical School, I spent the year in Israel. I lived in student housing and we had a big Sukkah where all of us studentswould eat our meals. The weather was perfect in Israel for eating in a Sukkah. Not too cold and not too hot. Not too many bugs and the perfect atmosphere to sit and study and have a conversation after a meal.

While I was in Israel that year, we went on a tour of the farmland that surrounds Jerusalem. We were looking for Shomriot. A shomriah is a hut that is a temporary home for a family during the harvest season. It is usually a stone building with a flat roof. It is often under a huge shade tree. On hot nights, the family might sleep on the roof, going inside only if there is rain. Around the hut was a cleared area where the family could leave grapes in the sun to become raisins and to dry dates and figs. There was a cistern for water and a cooking area where dinner could be prepared. During the harvest, the family would move in so they could get an early start on the harvest each day. When the harvest was finished, they loaded up the produce, the raisins, figs and dates and moved back home. The shomriah would be empty again until the next harvest.

The Talmud notes that when most families were moving out of their Shomriot, Jews were moving into their Sukkot. A Sukkah was also meant to be a temporary home. But it was not for the purpose of bringing in the harvest. It could only be used once the harvest was over. A Sukkah could not be built under a tree, but had to be under the open sky. A Sukkah could not have a roof, it was only meant to be a shady spot, where there was more sun than shade inside by day, and one could look up and see stars by night.

All of this works fine in Israel, but not in the rest of the world. In Poland and Russia, it is already close to freezing at night and there can be terrible rainstorms at this season of the year. Here in Florida, it will not cool off for another two months and it can rain every day. In Minnesota it would snow on our Sukkah. In Australia, it is not even fall; it is right in the middle of spring. When hurricane Wilma threatened South Florida, we had to take our Sukkah down. Who knows how they will someday celebrate Sukkot on the moon or in space.

Sukkot is Israel’s holiday. Anyone can build a Sukkah in their yard or courtyard. Every major building has one on the side or on the roof. Ever restaurant has a Sukkah for patrons to eat in if they wish. One can buy a lulav and etrog almost everywhere and they are fresh, not delivered by some overnight carrier. People in Israel are happy to be in a Sukkah and they spend long hours into the night enjoying the cool night air. Sukkot is one of the best times to visit Israel.

A little girl was out walking one evening with her father. As they came to the top of the hill, the girl asked, “Daddy, how far can you see?” the father looked out to the horizon and said, “I guess I can see a couple of miles.” The girl said, “I can see millions and millions of miles.” Her father smiled and said, “Gee honey, how can you see so far?” The little girl pointed at the sky, I can see the stars and they are millions of miles away, look up Daddy and you can see them too!”

This is one of the lessons of the Sukkah. All year we live inside the four walls of our homes. We shut ourselves in and we shut out all of nature that we don’t want invading our homes. We tint our windows; install blinds to keep the sun out. We put locks on our doors for security. We make sure that rain cannot leak in our roof. All year long we can only look out our windows at the little bit of nature in our back yard or across the street.

On Sukkot, we learn to lift our vision higher. We look up through the roof and take in the stars. We can once again see for millions and millions of miles. We once again are a part of nature, not separate from it. We stop viewing the world that we have created for ourselves and we start seeing our place in the natural world again. Instead of seeing only what we have bought for ourselves, we can set our gaze up to the heavens and once again dare to dream of the stars. No matter how discouraged or closed in we may feel, if we can lift our eyes to the stars, we can let ourselves become inspired again.

On Sukkot we invite God to join us in our Sukkah, to make it a sukkat shalom, a Sukkah of peace. There is an ancient tradition that each night of Sukkot, we invite heavenly guests to join our earthly guests in the Sukkah. We invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David into our Sukkot. Each one blesses us with their presence. These heavenly guests make our Sukkah a holy space. One that reminds us of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that our ancestors built in the wilderness. It was there that our ancestors contemplated God. We should do no less when we are in our Sukkah as well.

How do we respond to the holiness of the Sukkah, to the wonder and beauty of nature and to the grandeur of the stars? What are we supposed to say when we leave the comfort of our homes to once again become a part of nature? How do we show our gratitude to God for wonders of this world in which we live? In Judaism, to show appreciation, we recite a blessing.

On Sukkot we have the blessing of the lulav and etrog that we recite each day as we take them up to wave them in the synagogue. There is the blessing for sitting in the Sukkah. It is not enough to just pass through a Sukkah; we have to sit and spend some time contemplating our surroundings, and then say a blessing for sitting. We can say a blessing over the foods that we eat in the Sukkah. Some say that there is a special merit of saying the blessing for lulav and etrog in the Sukkah, bringing these two important symbols of the holiday together.

But in my mind, the most important blessing we can say in the Sukkah is the blessing that we have come again to this season of the year, that winter may be coming soon, but we are grateful and thankful that we are blessed with food, clothing and shelter to protect us from any force of nature. We recite on Sukkot the Shehechiyanu, the prayer that thanks God for giving us another year to dwell in the Sukkah and contemplate again, our place in the universe. Thank you God for keeping us alive, sustaining us and bringing us again in peace to your sukkat shalom, your Sukkah of peace.

May there be peace in our homes, peace in our land and peace in Israel, our homeland and may each of us dwell in our own Sukkot with no one to make us afraid.

Amen and Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

Monday, October 5, 2009

Good Day Sunshine

First Day of Sukkot

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

The Sages of the Talmud had a special name for this Holiday. They did not call it Sukkot, even though they commanded everyone to live in a Sukkah. The Torah calls this Hag HaAsaf, the Harvest Festival but that was not good enough for the Sages either. The Sages simply called this Holiday, “HaHag”, “THE Festival” it was the happiest festival, it was, to the Sages, the best Holiday that Judaism had to offer.

Why was Sukkot such a happy time? Well, first of all the harvest was in. There had not been a drought, a blight or a famine. Enemies had not come to steal the food or to destroy the crops. Everyone knew that there would be enough food to get through the winter. That alone was a reason to rejoice. There had also been enough water for the harvest. The rainy season was about to begin and there were celebrations and prayers for the next year’s rains. That was another reason to celebrate. Finally there were special sacrifices for all the other nations of the world. We prayed that all nations would have the food that they needed and ample water for their citizens so they would not have to go to war. Sukkot was a holiday of international peace. That too is a good reason to celebrate.

But I think that real reason for the joy of Sukkot is being outside, under the sky and under the stars, smelling the flowers and branches of the Sukkah and getting back in touch with the wonders of God’s world. There are so many berachot that the Sages command us to say when we see the hand of God in nature that Sukkot is a natural time to be thankful for all the wonders of the world.

When I see a sunset or a sunrise (I get up early in the morning), I see the hand of God. When I see lightening and rain, I see God’s blessings. When I see trees, flowers and grass together in a garden or out in the forest or meadow, I see the beauty of God’s paintbrush. When I see the crashing of the waves of the ocean, the majesty of the mountains, the vastness of the Great Plains, I see God’s wonders. When I see a sand dune on the shore, crystals growing in the rocks and the many different animals and insects that share our world, I can’t help but contemplate God’s hand in the world. (I do draw the line, however, with mosquitoes; I think they are an accident of nature.)

There are so many people, however, who see what I see but they don’t see God at all. They may take for granted all the wonders of nature. They understand that God cannot be seen so they think that God is hidden away somewhere; way up in heaven, out in the vastness of space, or hidden in the deepest bowels of the earth. God is far removed from this world and far removed from their attention. If God is nearby, they just don’t see the divinity.

There is a famous story of a fish who overheard two men talking by the shore. They said that water was the most important thing in the entire world, that life is not possible without water. The fish began to think, “I would love to see this wonder called “water”, wherever could it be found? He began to ask all the fish in the pond but none of them ever heard of water. He swam downstream, and he asked every other fish he met if they could show him water, but none of them had ever heard of water let alone know where it could be found. Out into the deep see went our friend the fish until he met a wise old fish deep in the sea. “Of course I know what water is,” said the old fish. “I understand it is important for all life. Can you show it to me?” asked our friend. “Show it to you?” said the old fish, “it is all around you, above you and below you, water is everywhere!” But the little fish could not understand how water could be everywhere so, as far as we know, he is still looking for water.

Where would we go if we were looking for God? The Torah tells us that God is not in heaven that we would need some great thinker to go there to hear God’s word. And God is not over the sea, that we need some hero to go and brave the storms to bring us the word of God. No, God is close by, all around us, above us and below us. Everything we see, touch, taste or hear is filled with God. Most of the time we are too busy to notice. Sukkot gets us outside and helps us get ready to pay attention to experience the God that surrounds us.

Rabbi Shira Milgrom sees God in the cable cars of San Francisco. How do these trolleys, full of people manage to climb up or down the steep streets of their city? The secret is under the surface of the road. There, under the tracks, is a steel cable. When the trolley wants to go up the hill, it attaches itself to one of the cables and is pulled up the hill. When it needs to go downhill, it does the same thing, so as not to go downhill out of control. Even when there is no cable car in sight, one can look down into the opening in the street to see that the cables are always running.

So too, God is the force of life that runs through all that we experience in the world. Sometimes the divinity of the universe bubbles to the surface. We can notice it when someone we least expect does something heroic, like saving a child from a burning building or sheltering a family who is being persecuted, or protesting an injustice. Perhaps anytime we do what is right even against our own self interest it is an example of God’s hand in the world, always running.

When we go outside to dwell in our Sukkot, we become more sensitive to the world, both the harmony and the inequality of the world. Our Sukkah reminds us that there are those who sleep every night without a roof over their heads. When we eat in the Sukkah, it is hard not to consider the plight of some 30,000 children who die each year in third world countries, not because there is not enough food in the world, only because rich nations don’t send excess food to poor nations. When we gather with our families in our Sukkah, we realize how much courage a person needs takes to love another in this world. We have to ignore the possibility of separation, of disappointment and of death and we have to love anyway. In all of these ways we can experience the divinity that is constantly pulling at us to be a better person, to pay attention to the needs of people around us and to hear the call that will lead us to a life that will be meaningful and significant, to those in this world who are in need of a hand.

If Sukkot is a happy holiday it is because we once again tap into that divine force that runs through all of life. We understand anew that God fills the world with holiness and fill us with so much love and compassion that we cannot help but extend our hands and our hearts to those in need of help and understanding. On Sukkot we realize that God can be found in the knowledge that life, all life, especially our life, matters, makes a difference and is significant even in the vastness of the universe.

Sukkot is not only about being out in nature, it is about our becoming one with the divinity that surrounds us. Sukkot is about us partnering with God to make the world kinder, more loving and better. On Sukkot we remember to welcome guests, feed the hungry, help shelter the homeless and heal the sick and broken hearted. Our hands become God’s hands. Our feet become God’s feet and instead of asking, “Where is God?” we respond to the world saying, “For the sake of God, I can make a difference.”

That is a reason to get outside and to get in touch with the outdoors. That is the way we can find meaning in nature, life and the universe. And that is the most important reason to rejoice on this extraordinary festival. May God be near to us not just this day but every day, and may we tap into the divinity coursing through the world so that we can also be a force for good, for life and for peace.

And let us say Amen and Hag Sameach