The fall festival season draws to its close

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Moadim l’simcha — I wish you joy in our festivals! I hope your Sukkot has been sweet thus far. We had a lovely Sukkot Shabbat potluck in the synagogue sukkah; a few photographs have been posted to the CBI Facebook page. Many thanks to all who joined us. This week we’ll journey through three final festival doorways: Hoshanna Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

Hoshanna Rabbah means “The Great ‘Save Us!'” It is observed on the seventh day of Sukkot (that’s tomorrow.) On Hoshanna Rabbah, it’s customary to make seven hakafot (circles / circuits) around the synagogue sanctuary carrying our lulavim (the bundles of branches which we wave in all directions during Sukkot.) There’s also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground as part of a prayer for rain; the falling willow leaves might represent the raindrops which we pray will fall in months to come. (This tradition, like many of our liturgical traditions, arose in the Middle East where rain never falls during the summer — but if rain doesn’t fall during the winter, then life can’t be sustained.)

Although we won’t have a formal service at CBI for Hoshanna Rabbah, you can take a moment to experience the poetic flavor of the day by reading these contemporary Hoshanot (prayers for salvation) written by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: Hoshanot by Reb Zalman z”l.

Shemini Atzeret means “The Lingering of the Eighth Day.” One of my favorite Hasidic tradition holds that Shemini Atzeret is the day when God turns to us and says, “It’s been so sweet to spend the week of Sukkot with you; don’t go quite yet, can’t you linger a little longer?” On Shemini Atzeret, even though the seven days of Sukkot are over, we linger an extra day in the close presence of God. Shemini Atzeret is one of the four days of the year when we recite Yizkor, the service of memorial prayers which offer an opportunity for us to remember and reconnect with our beloved dead.

Rabbi Pam Wax will be leading a Shemini Atzeret morning service, with Yizkor, at 9:30am on Thursday morning. On Shemini Atzeret we recite special prayers for rain. (This is another liturgical tradition which arose in the Middle East, where winter rains are so precious and necessary.) Our morning service will feature several beautiful readings/prayers about rain/water/drought, etc. Environmentalists should come!

Simchat Torah is the final mini-festival in our fall festival cycle. Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah,” and is the time when we rejoice in the completion of one Torah cycle and the beginning of another. Often we read the very end of the Torah followed by the very beginning of the Torah. Other customs include dancing the Torah scrolls around the room seven times. Our Thursday morning service will be a celebration of both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, so there will be a lot of music, as well.  Weather permitting, we will be having our last meal in the sukkah after services. Rabbi Pam Wax will be bringing some food to share, but if you want to join us for a fuller meal please bring a brown-bag lunch.On Friday, our monthly spiritual discussion group will meet at 3pm in my office. We’ll speak together about what has opened up in us during this long stretch of festival time.I wish you continuing joy in the unfolding of our fall festival season.Blessings to all,Rabbi Rachel

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