Parshat Ha’azinu: Finding meaning in holiday rituals

Rabbi Michael Werbow
Rabbi Michael Werbow (Courtesy of Rabbi Michael Werbow)

By Rabbi Michael Werbow

On our way to Sukkot and Simchat Torah, we pause for a poem by Moses in which he testifies before the heavens of all the good that God has done for the Israelites, how they have had missteps along the way and how, even in the face of those transgressions, God will remain a presence and support in their lives. This poem then sets the stage for Moses’ final blessing to the people and the conclusion of the Torah on Simchat Torah.

Following the poem, Moses speaks of continuity. He says that the people should charge their children with the instructions of the teachings and lead them to engage in them. He states: “This is not an empty thing for you: It is your very life.”

One way to read this is that the people, and their descendants, are to find meaning in the teachings of the Torah and the broader tradition. We are to engage in the vast rituals of Judaism and be enriched by them. Rabbeinu Bahya, a Torah scholar from Spain in the late 13th century, wrote that the teachings were not given as a waste of time and should not be seen that way. They should be seen as life affirming and life giving.

Sometimes, especially in the midst of holiday after holiday after holiday, we can fall into a routine and just go through the motions. Maybe you can push yourself to think of another way you can do better in the year to come. You can carry around a sheet with a list of areas for personal development and growth and focus on one of them.

Throughout the holiday of Sukkot, we take four species of vegetation called the lulav and the etrog. We hold them together and wave them in six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down).

A traditional view is that we are remembering the divine clouds which accompanied the Israelites as they traveled through the desert. There were clouds on each side as well as above them and below them to protect them from the elements all around.

We may have a hard time relating to the Israelites and their time in the desert, so waving the lulav could feel empty to us. Rabbeinu Bachya would say: Don’t let this remain an empty action. Give it meaning. Maybe you can think of things that impact you from each direction? You can focus on memories you have of connecting with each direction. This can even include up, thinking about your relationship to the air and the skies above, as well as down, and your connection to the earth below your feet.

These are but a few suggestions of how to take the Torah’s words to heart. It would be a shame if our tradition was in any way frivolous and meaningless. It is our challenge and opportunity to figure out how to find meaning in it.

Rabbi Michael Werbow leads Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

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