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Ellie S. Grossman

Our Anniversary In The Sukkah

Twenty seven years ago, my husband and I stood under the huppa (chuppa) and made our vows to stick together through the best and worst of times and everything in between. We made a commitment to create a life together based on Jewish values under the watchful eye of God, that’s what a huppa is all about.

Today, on the last day of Sukkot, which is also Shabbat, known as Hoshana Rabbah, we are renewing our vows to each other and, by doing certain rituals under the sukkah, we are renewing our vows to God and the the Jewish people.

When I was a bride I clutched a bouquet of ivory roses as I walked down the aisle towards my soon-to-be husband who stood under the huppa waiting for me with a nervous smile on his face. Today, I hold in my hand the sweet smelling fruit called etrog (esrog) with the palm, myrtle and willow branches of the lulav, and wave the Four Species together in all directions in the sukkah.  Scott’s still smiling, but this time because I’m shaking my lulav and we’re having strudel for dessert.

Lulav and Etrog Symbolize Unity

I have chosen Sukkot as the theme of this year’s anniversary–why not–considering the actual modern gift associated with the 27th year is “sculptures.”  So, here’s my attempt to connect the meaning of the sanctity of marriage to this joyous holiday.

The lulav and etrog can be compared to a married couple, who bring their own unique qualities and strengths to a relationship. A lulav is a slender palm branch that is held together with two willow branches and three willow branches.  An etrog, or citron, looks like an enlarged bumpy lemon and a whiff of the subtle scent is heavenly and intoxicating. Together, the branches and fruit have their own beauty and symbolism.

A midrash explains that the Four Species symbolize the importance of unity among different types of Jews. The etrog has both a flavor and a scent, like a Jew who is both learned and observant of the commandments.  The lulav is from a date palm, and so it has a taste but no scent.  It is likened to a Jew who is learned but does not apply that knowledge in action.  A myrtle has a pleasant odor but no taste, and it represents the Jew who has little book learning behind his or her observance.  Finally, the willow lacks both fragrance and taste, just like the Jew who neither studies the Torah nor keeps the commandments.  These differences among Jews are substantial, yet we can still come together in solidarity, just as the lulav and etrog are bound together to merit a blessing. Same as a married couple. We bring our own unique qualities to the relationship, and we are better, stronger when we are committed as one.

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Raise The Roof—S’chach —On The Symbolism of Sukkot

You shall dwell in huts (sukkot) for seven days. Every member of the Jewish people shall dwell in huts, so that your generations shall know that I had the Israelites dwell in huts when I took them out of Egypt. Leviticus 23:34

Many years ago when I built my first sukkah in my own backyard, I was super excited to find a pile of freshly cut tree branches in the temple parking lot in carpool line.

It was fate. Or as we say in Hebrew, kismet. Since nobody else was claiming this tree limb treasure, I somehow managed to drag the logs like a lumberjack to my van and shove the messy branches into my newly vacuumed back seat. Little did I know these leafy sticks that I was about to lay on the roof of my sukkah had a name, s’chach  and I was doing a mitzvah. Continue reading

Rosh Hashanah Feast Serves Up Symbolism

Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah are filled with rituals, tradition, and symbolism that nourish the body and the soul through food, and we’re not talking about brisket and matzo ball soup that always earn a spot on the menu.

The rich and abundant foods served on Rosh Hashanah are called simanim, which means “signs” or” indicators.” Like the special foods we eat at a Passover seder, simanim give us a taste of Jewish wisdom by directing us to improve ourselves and return to a life with more purpose and meaning. This idea of teshuva is what the High Holidays is all about, little did we know it tasted so good, with a dash of Yiddish pun.

So, let’s dig in! Continue reading

The Sounding of the Shofar Awakens The Soul

One of the highlights of the high holidays is to hear the shofar.

The shofar, a hollowed out ram’s horn, is the most ancient musical instrument used throughout history as a rallying call to bring people together. In ancient Israel, the shofar announced the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), was blown in the desert as a battle cry to declare war and celebrate victories, was blasted on Mount Sinai when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments, and the Hebrew tribe Levites of the Holy Temple played the shofar as one of their musical instruments.

In modern times, the shofar most commonly blown like a trumpet to signal the coming of the New Year—Rosh Hashanah—and to awaken our souls and bring us closer to God.

Traditionally, the most common place to hear the shofar is in synagogue, but this year because of covid19, many of us will hear the blast of the shofar outdoors, in a park, on a neighborhood street, in our backyard, or virtually on a computer. Continue reading

MyZuzah Wants To Bless Every Jewish Home in the World

Our homes are our castles–even more than that– our homes are our sanctuaries and the foundation of our Jewish lives.

Some of our fondest childhood memories take place in the home…lighting the Hanukkah menorah and displaying it in the window, gathering together for Shabbat, building a sukkah in our backyard are just a few ways build our Jewish identity for generations to come. Continue reading

Dreaming of Coronavirus and Casseroles Keep Me Up At Night

Two main things keep me up at night. First and foremost, the health and safety of my family. Secondly, what to make for dinner. Also, hot flashes. So technically that’s three things that keep me tossing and turning in bed while everyone else is sleeping. Continue reading

Tisha B’Av, A Time To Rebuild Our Inner Sanctuary

If ever there is an appropriate time for communal mourning, it is now, in the midst of a global pandemic.  On July 29 at sundown marks the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the many catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people at this very time throughout our history.

Tisha B’Av is not a holiday of joy, but rather an anticipation of better days to come. This perspective sheds light and gives us hope in our modern day tragedy. Pandemic, protests, politics…we are in a war amongst ourselves.

Tisha B’Av, which literally means the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, is a time to remember the destruction of the two holy temples in Jerusalem almost 2,000 and 2,500 years ago, as well as other calamities that sought to break our soul and destroy us. We remember these tragic events that include the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1942, the start of World War I and the ensuing tragedy of both Worlds Wars that lead to the Holocaust, and more HERE.

The exile lasted up until the Six Day War in 1967 when, after a battle, the Western Wall became ours again. Today, the world is under siege by  the fallout of COVID-19. The novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on humanity on all fronts–physically, emotionally, economically, socially, morally, and ethically. We were not prepared for this  causing much pain, suffering, fear and uncertainty.  And tragically, we are our own worst enemy. Continue reading

Juneteenth Shabbat, The Jewish Connection to Black Freedom

This Friday night, Shabbat coincides with Juneteenth, the commemoration of the official ending of mass enslavement of African Americans, an event which took place on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, three month after the conclusion of the Civil War and more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is the oldest-known commemoration of the end of slavery in America, with a sordid past that continues to enslave the very people whose ancestors were forced to leave their homeland in order to build our country. Watch the video below for a good explanation, and then read 12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth.

If any tribe can relate to a tumultuous journey of slavery to freedom, it’s the Jews. That’s why Jewish people have an obligation to understand and seek justice and equality for the black community who is hurting right now. Here’s how you can honor Juneteenth at home.

I have a confession. Even though “Juneteenth” appears on my calendar app as a national holiday, like Father’s Day this Sunday and Independence Day next month, I never knew what this annual holiday on June 19th was all about. We didn’t learn about these historical events in school, and as an adult I never bothered to find out more. If it wasn’t for the Black Lives Matter movement, many white people would still be clueless about Juneteenth and the continuous systemic supression of the black community.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, matters to all of us, and this short, fascinating video shows us why:

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Time to Rest and Recharge–It’s Shabbat

 

Our country, our world, is in turmoil. Protests, both peaceful and destructive, are on the rise right along with the surge of coronavirus. The days are stressful and confusing, and many people are sick and suffering. The good– people of all races, colors, religions, and generations are unifying and standing up for racial equality, social justice, and policy reform. The bad–government and police struggle to maintain control, while malicious radicals take advantage of the chaos. While people are coming together, there is still much division, anger, and emotion tearing us apart. We need law and order to live in a free society, but how we get there remains an elusive ethical dilemma one of the many themes of this week’s Parshat Behaalotcha.

We have a long way to go. but the conversation is started, and there is hope. And there is Shabbat.

In the famous words of Ahad Ha’am, founder of cultural Zionism:  “More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Shabbat does not make any of the pain go away, but rather a brief period of time to rest and recharge so we can forge ahead in the next week with a renewed engergy and purpose. Shabbat has sustained the Jewish people since the beginning of time,  allowing us to turn down the chaos and turn on our connection to God. When life around us seems so out of control, Shabbat is the one constant. The strike of a match that begins and ends Shabbat is the light that permeates the darkness and helps us see things clearer and with greater understanding.

And from Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of the Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa and founder of the Shabbat Project,  “Whatever Jews have gone through or are dealing with today, Shabbat is a reminder that for a 25-hour period, there is a need to disconnect from the world, reintegrate with family, be part of a community, and connect with God.”

On Friday nights, my son usually comes over for dinner and stays overnight, and I make a special meal and of course challah. I even pour grape juice into a purple glass decanter for my husband (wine gives him a stomachache).  After the last bite of fudge brownie for dessert, my son and I sometimes venture into the living room, which I call the “Shabbat Parlor,” and we casually talk about the Torah portion while my toy poodle Beau snuggles contently on my lap. At some point in the night, Jack goes for a walk on his own to the common ground down the street. The moon hangs in the sky and there is a quietness in the air except maybe sounds of crickets and a croaking toad. This is where Jack comes to pray, joined only by a deer grazing nearby. I call it “davening in the corn field.”

During Shabbat, Jack shares what he learned from the commentaries of some of his favorite Rabbi teachers, including Jonathan Sacks, David Wolpe and Rashi to name a few, while I usually rely on the summaries of Chana Weisberg’s Shabbat deLights or the many wonderful Zoom webinars from orthodox to reform, including Aish St. Louis and Congregation Shaare Emeth where I know the clergy personally. Sometimes we have our talks during our walks around the neighborhood, this is our uninterrupted time together, a safe place to share what’s on our minds. My husband and daughter prefer to do their own thing, and that’s OK, they are always welcome to join our deep conversations.

Even though currently we are not gathering in person in our communities because of coronavirus, there are many ways to stay connected, including Project Inspire, which allows Jews around the world to turn Friday night into Shabbat with inspirational speakers, musical performances, special guests, and even cooking demos to get us hungry for more.  I often tune into the one-hour program while I’m cutting up fruit or setting the table.

Shabbat has the most ancient roots in Judaism, but the universal message is more relevant than ever before. In the onslaught of modern technology, social media, and nonstop CNN, Shabbat gives us permission to turn off the noise and connect with God and our Jewish values that shapes how we perceive the world and guides us to how we fit in.

Go HERE to download a guide to bringing Shabbat home, whether you’re a host or a guest, or having an intimate celebration with your immediate family.

In  Parshat Beha’alotcha, Hebrew for “when you step up,” we read the story about the Israelites crying out again complaining about the miserable conditions of the desert. They complained to their leader Moses that there was nothing to eat besides manna and they wanted meat and fish and fruits and vegetables like they ate in Egypt. It’s as if they forgot how unbearable their life was as slaves in Egypt. Now that they are free, and have manna to eat and this substance from heaven tastes like whatever they crave, the Jews are also obligated to follow the laws of the land, the commandments.

Moses heard their weeping and begged God, “Why have You placed the burden of this entire people upon me. I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy a burden.”

God said to Moses, “gather seventy men from among the elders of Israel and have them stand with you at the Tent of Appointed Meeting. They will then bear the burden of the people with you. As for the people complaining that life was better for them in Egypt, tell them that God will provide meat. Tell them it will be so much meat that they must eat it for a whole month until it comes out of their nostrils and makes them nauseated. Tell them it is because you have rejected Hashem who is in your midst and you have wept before Hashem saying, ‘Why did we leave Egypt?’”

The meaning of  the Torah go below the surface, and one midrash suggests that in Beha’alotcha  the complaints of the Jewish people is not so much about their physical needs but more about freedom. The word “free” in this Torah portion means “free of divine precepts,” meaning they are responsible for their own actions and for following the laws of the Torah, which requires great social responsibility. And perhaps it means that while change starts by taking individual responsibility, we all must stand together as one people, one nation, and this is never more true than during a time of protest in a pandemic.

Shabbat Shalom, may you find peace, comfort, and reassurance that we are here for a reason and that unity is a verb, not a noun, and we all have a role in making this world a more equal, kinder place.

 

 

 

 

Strangers In A Strange Land, Why Jews Stand With Black Lives

It has been a heart-wrenching few weeks in our nation, in the aftermath of the brutal lynching of George Floyd.

His crime—allegedly spending a $20 counterfeit bill at a convenience store.  It was Memorial Day, and the media was transfixed on reporting about the massive crowds partying at Lake of the Ozarks oblivious to spreading coronavirus to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, another pandemic was happening that many of us felt immune to—and that is the plague of racism in our country. Continue reading