Song of Songs
Posted by: Irina Kot on Friday, April 22, 2011 at 12:00:00 am | Comments (2)
I was born in Odessa but came to the States when I was one
year old. My parents decided a better life awaited us here and being back
proved they just may have been right. I didn’t feel much until the moment that the
plane landed in Ukraine, when a feeling of excitement and maybe even pride came
over me. It was quick and powerful. I was home.
I knew we had a great group of participants, a solid itinerary, and a lot to
learn. I didn’t know that forgotten memories related to my Ukrainian background
would resurface. My grandma, a holocaust survivor, passed away a little over a
year ago. When we were in Hillel Odessa , we were introduced to a Ukrainian
song that brought my grandma back to me. It was a song that she taught me when
I was a kid. A song I hadn’t heard since then but still knew. A song that
brought me to tears.
Visiting the shtetle of Berdichev overwhelmed me with an intangible sadness.
Maybe it was the fact that the city once housed 50,000 Jews but it now has only
500. Or that the youngest ritual participants are in their fifties. Or that the
Torah scrolls were stolen three times. The Jewish people have such a sad
history. I am the Jewish people.
Equally moving but opposite in mood have been my fellow participants. We have
shared too many laughs, beautiful song, free spirited dance, and memories that
no one can ever take from us. It is so interesting to hear two recent strangers
from different walks of life talking. Our differences just reinforce that there
is no particular look of Jewry or Jews. I like it that way.
Posted by: Katie Chancer on Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 12:00:00 am | Comments (0)
sun has set on our day trip from Odessa, through a few Jewish Communities, to
Kiev. The first stop was Uman, site of Rabbi Nachman’s grave, and then to
Berdichev, site of Rabbi Levi Yitzak’s grave. The last stop of the day was Zhitzomer
to visit a synagogue before we reach Kiev for the remainder of our time here.
the long hours of driving in between communities, it was a very good day.
Visiting all of these different areas in the countryside made me realize that
even in the most remote towns, there is a proud and thriving Jewish community.
They are all small in size; the Berdichev rabbi said that there are 10-12 men that
come for the daily mincha. The Jewish crowd is a much older set. In Berdichev,
the groundskeeper of the synagogue said that the youngest members of the
synagogue are in their fifties. While he himself was almost 70, he said that he
was not even close to being the oldest member.
has been an interesting few days. I don’t mean interesting in the way that if
someone’s food tastes bad you tell them it is “interesting,” but interesting in
the way that really opens your eyes and teaches you something new. Everyone has different views, but what ties us
all together is that we are Jewish. At the first Pesach seder that we had as a
group, we all brought a bit of our family traditions. We ran around swatting
each other with towels, which is a tradition of my roommate Lital’s Persian
have really learned so much while on this trip. On the drive from Kiev to Odessa,
I was taught how to read the Cyrillic alphabet, and am now able to identify
most words on the street signs. I also know how to have a 2 sentence
conversation with a Russian speaker, with the following phrases: hello and how are
you. I also know important phrases like how to scream for help, and ask for the
location of the ladies room.
the days to come, I am excited to get to know everyone else on the trip better.
I really didn’t know anyone before coming on the trip, except for Matt and
Boyana. As unlikely as it seems, but i have already made such a strong
connection with a few of my fellow participants. Given our situation, I know
that I have made friends for life.
A Palace in Time
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 12:00:00 am | Comments (0)
With apologies to Abraham Joshua Heschel, long distance
travel is a palace in time. However, the
seats in this palace have no legroom and fold-down tables, the meals are
indiscriminate meats in tiny trays and the language is 1000 dialects of
We started our journey with a three-hour delay in Newark due
to high winds and torrential rain.
Depsite all that, we still made it to Warsaw a mere 15 minutes after our
connecting flight was scheduled to depart.
Even though there were close to 50 people on our flight that needed the
connecting flight to Kiev, the plane still took off without us and the rest of
the passengers. But hey, we got a meal voucher!
We were able to
negotiate a new itinerary that now included a short flight from Warsaw to Vienna
on a two propeller plane and a flight to Kiev from there. Understandably nervous about the luggage
situation, we had no choice but to board.
It couldn’t have been that simple however as all but one of us was booked
for the flight with Luba inexplicably booked for the waiting list for the same
flight. Pleading with the kind Austrian
Airways staff yielded one first class ticket for our group and confirmed seats
for the rest of us.
When we finally
landed in Kiev all seemed well…except when the luggage carousel stopped with
three bags missing. I can only hope that
LOT Airlines will do whatever they can to get the remaining luggage to us in
Odessa, free Hillel t-shirts only go so far.
Enough with the mundane aspects of travel though. We were finally all here! New York, Israel and Kiev together at
last! This morning we met in the Kiev
Hillel to receive an official welcome from Osik Akselrud, the Director of the
CASE Hillels. I had a great sense of
pride and accomplishment already as I looked around the room at the 30 students
and staff from all around the world, here together for Kol Hillel. Over a year and half ago, this was just an
idea on a piece of paper. The Jewish
Peoplehood Innovation Award from NADAV Foundation helped kickstart the
initiative and helped attract more support from UJA-Federation of New York,
Jewish Agency for Israel and the Global Jewish Connections Initiative.
It was so amazing to
see the things that we had spent so long planning with Kiev Hillel and IDC
Hillel actually happening. To hear the
participants laughing and smiling in Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew and English…it
was indescribable. This is what Jewish
Peoplehood is all about…the tangible unity of an indescribable
commonality. Everyone in this group has
a very different connection to their Jewish identity; there may be different
knowledge, different experiences, different traditions and cultures, but we are
Next post: A Passover seder from Russian-language haggadot,
planned and led by everyone here. This
too is the reality of Jewish Peoplehood…the varying cultures, traditions and
languages will combine to create something greater, something holier, something
very, very Jewish.
There, and back again
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Friday, April 15, 2011 at 12:00:00 am | Comments (0)
We are less than 24 hours away from our first Kol Hillel trip!
A big thanks to NADAV Foundation, UJA-Federation of New York, Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel Connect for helping make this all a reality!
Keep checking in during the coming days as we'll have regular posts from trip participants (pictured below on a video conference with Kiev and Herzliya).
Chag Sameach! !חג שמח
General Assembly 2010
Posted by: Alena Karlik on Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 12:00:00 am | Comments (1)
My Experience at the General Assembly
From November 17 through 19 I attended the General Assembly in New Orleans representing Baruch College Hillel. Matthew Vogel, the Executive Director of Hillel suggested that I should participate of this conference. At first, I was a little
skeptical, I feared it would be too religious,
but then decided to give it a try. A week before the General Assembly, I attended a meeting about what should
be done there, where I met a lot of other students from Brooklyn
College and LIU Hillel that were attending the conference. Some of them I actually
knew previously so I was getting very excited about the trip. We all took the same flight, which was comforting. When I got to the Assembly, I walked
into the room with thousands of people. I received my badge, settled in the hotel
room, and started exploring the area with other Hillel students. I got to hear
great speakers such as Joe Bidden, Vice President of the United States, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of
Israel, and many other whose speech touched my heart. On Monday, we spent half of our day volunteering. It gave us all the opportunity to see how people were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. We got to meet the victims and hear their stories.
It made me feel good when strangers that were passing by would say "Thank
You!" and appreciate the work that I actually did not mind doing. During
the free time other Hillel students and I went to explore the city, and see what it had to offer. I hated leaving New
Orleans. I met so many great people. I would love to participate in GA next
Posted by: Miriam Lipsius on Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 12:00:00 am | Comments (0)
A mere five years ago, my reading
material was limited to things that were religiously uncontroversial, I could
count the number of movies I had seen in theater on my fingers, and I was not
allowed to use the Internet without parental
supervision or consent. Today I am 20 years old, enrolled in Baruch College, and I have
discovered that the insularity with which I was
raised pales in comparison to the xenophobic and
overbearing nature of other religious sects.
About a month ago, I was introduced to Footsteps (footstepsorg.org), a
secret society of sorts. This group is
comprised of young adults who have elected to
leave their ultraorthodox way of life.
The members come from religious sects that censored their education and
manipulated their lives to a dastardly extent.
from communities in New York State with regulatory power akin to that of a
regime. These communities have their own
judicial system they turn to as a form of arbitration recognized by and
supplanting New York’s judicial system. They have their own private schools wherein instead of educating their students, they seem to exist for the sole
purpose of depriving their students of education. These schools teach a maximum of one and a
half hours of secular studies each day just four
days of the week; the remainder of the time is
devoted to religious studies. The students leave these institutions without
a substantive grasp of the
English language and with no knowledge of their
country’s history and heritage. They are
proficient in a language that is not quite a single language, but a bizarre
dialect, a relic of ancient Europe, a conglomerate of languages seldom spoken outside their community. These students
have never heard of the United States Constitution or the Declaration of
Independence, and they will never learn about the big bang, evolution, and age
of the universe or anything scientific that might remotely associate with anything religiously contentious.
These communities have separate
institutions for girls and boys. Girls
are typically privileged with a more decent
education than boys, but even their education pales in
comparison with the public school system. The girls, like the boys, are also lacking in
knowledge that might be fundamental to even a high school drop out;
things children are mandated to learn in grade
school. The girls,
at the very least,
learn the English language and can speak it fluently
though amateurishly by comparison. In some of these communities, the boys are
expected to pick up the English language once they are married, their wives
serving as their teachers.
New York State has very explicit
standards for education, and these communities are in flagrant violation of
NY EDUC s 3204
Consolidated Laws of New York Annotated Currentness
Education Law (Refs & Annos)
Chapter 16. Of the
Consolidated Laws (Refs & Annos)
Title IV. Teachers and
Article 65. Compulsory Education and School Census (Refs & Annos)
Part I. Compulsory Education
§ 3204. Instruction required
3204.2 - Title IV, Article 65, Part I states:
given to a minor elsewhere than at a public school shall be at least substantially
equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age and attainments at
the public schools of the city or district where the minor resides."
It should be noted that this law was
Education Law: First Amendment, Due Process and Discrimination
1. Religion Issues and Public Education[*]
§ 1:11. Religious Objections to Secular
Curriculum and Activities—Generally
This amendment invokes both the
establishment clause and free exercise clause (“Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of
religion or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof”) to make allowances and raise objections on religious grounds to school
activities or curriculum. However, this
amendment also states that “even when there is a substantial burden on
religious beliefs, the state's interest in educating its population may
The state has prescribed
standards and requirements for the education of its citizenry and these are
clearly not being met by some institutions. The educational attainments of the
students who attend these ultraorthodox institutions are not near
commensurate to those of even your less than average public school
student. These children do not even
obtain a high school diploma, depriving them of any hope of attending college
and achieving a higher level of education.
Some of the very motivated and highly intelligent young adults who have
left their oppressive communities turn to
organizations such as Footsteps to help them
obtain a GED and go on to earn post secondary degrees. Along
the way, they encounter many difficulties
between supporting themselves, self-teaching
things that many others take for granted and coping with estrangement from family that often
results from their decision to pursue higher education.
Adults for Fair Education (YAFFE, also a transliteration of the Hebrew word for
“beautiful”) was conceived to promote student activism, inform the public of
the grievance of the victims of these ultraorthodox communities, and to take
legal action, whence appropriate. YAFFE aims to provide a more beautiful and
enlightened future for those who have been deprived of the education and the
tools that would have enabled them to find their futures on their own.
[For more information or if you
would like to get involved, please contact email@example.com
or you can be in touch with the author of this article by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org]
Searching for Peace
Posted by: Greg on Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 10:20:33 pm | Comments (0)
Trying to understand the
Arab-Israeli conflict is like a rubix cube. You’d spend some time, occasionally
hours trying to figure out how to get all those colors lined up. Finally, when
you finally have one of the sides with the same colors, you’d realize you have many
more to go, even though we know how the puzzle will end, with each of the
colors matched up on their side properly. The same could be said about the
conflict: We know the solution (two states for two peoples) and we know that we
have sometimes matched up the sides, only to realize we didn’t solve the puzzle
(Oslo Accords, the 2000 failed talks at Camp David).
Today, we again talk about the peace
process. Then, like clockwork, the media decides to focus on other things in
the seeming hopes of deriding the goal of peace. When I got my magazines to read
this past weekend, the cover of Time magazine caught my attention.
thought this doesn’t make sense. Israel, the country where it is written in the
it’s declaration of independence that Israel extends “our hand to all neighbouring
states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness?”
Israel, the country which, despite wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973, always asked
their neighbors for peace, only to read the Khartoum Resolution announce its
famous three no’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no
negotiations with it? Israel, the country which was able to achieve peace with
Egypt and Jordan, that Israel does not want peace?
After I read the article, Karl Vick makes more of an
argument that Israel has been pursuing peace and that ISRAEL HAS A RIGHT TO BE
SKEPTICAL considering the previous attempts for peace, chiefly the 2000 Camp
David talks where Israel offered everything Palestinian leadership demanded,
but left the negotiations without even a counter offer. The crux of the article
was that Karl cited a statistic that peace in the Middle East was 5th
on a list of concerns Israelis have while Israeli Arabs have peace as first on
their list. Does Karl think that Israeli’s should be walking around their
entire existence thinking about peace? This will be a shock to Karl but
Israelis, like everyone else, worry about other issues such as the economy,
crime, poverty, and national security (all of those came ahead of peace in the
poll Karl cites in the article). It makes sense that Israeli Arabs make it
first on their list because they don’t want to be isolated from their fellow
Arabs because they opted to be Israeli citizens.
If there is anything we can learn from Karl’s article and
the decision by the editors to make it the cover story with the wording they choose,
is that they were more interested in selling a few more magazines for the shock
value than writing an actual article. Hopefully, the news industry decides to
print stories that could help contribute to the peace process instead of trying to derail it.
PNEI training at Hillel Institute in St. Louis
Posted by: Desiree Nazarian on Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 11:47:45 pm | Comments (0)
“Missouri. Hmmm.. cows... farmland....” My thoughts to a tee right before attending the Hillel Institute in St. Louis Missouri. Little did I know, I was far from home yet close to an amazing week full of a true meaningful experience.
From the Hillel Institute I realized that always having an open mind when walking into any situation that comes forth is truly a gift. I made some great friends on this journey. Ones that I still speak with and enjoy the company of. The easy-going atmosphere during nighttime was very much needed and appreciated. It allowed us all to branch out and meet each other without being held under restraints. Some of the friends I made were more religious than I, some more laid back, and some more outrageous, but all in all a wonderful group of people. The people I met at the Institute were welcoming and some of them really wore their hearts on their sleeves. Personally, from this I learned more than I had thought I would coming out of the conference: To be the best that you can be and give the best you can offer while always staying true to yourself. This showed me to never have expectations in certain situations like these. It was a great experience for networking and socializing with other Hillel’s to understand their groove of handling things on their campuses. I will take back what I learned and apply it to being a PNEI at Baruch College for the following school year. I am looking forward to a positive and wonderful year!
Jewish Tourism and Personal Place
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 11:25:57 am | Comments (3)
First off, spelling Kyiv is the Ukranian way of spelling the city and Kiev is the Russian way. I'll probably end up referring to both throughout my time here. Either way, there are only so many times you can make the joke about asking if the chicken at the meal is chicken Kiev. :)
Our guide for the tour portion of the trip was Jeremy Leigh who has written extensively on the topic of wandering Jewishly and what it means to visit a place as a Jew and seeking the Jewishness inherent in a place. You can read a great article of his in PresentTense. We started our tour just outside the hotel across from the circus.
What is interesting is that this picture of Yelena Azriyel and Biana Lupa from two nights ago in front of the circus...
became transformed into something new as we found out that the circus used to be known as the Jewish market of Kyiv. Jeremy then asked us to consider who actually owned the memory of a place. Was it more likely to be the current residents? Historians or tourists? Or is it something that is navigated through all this varied ownership....
We moved from there to the central train station as pictured here.
As a daily commuter through Grand Central, I am quite familiar with the experience of train stations, particularly major hubs. This experience however was different for me, but I did not realize it at the time. I was taking pictures as a tourist, as someone far removed from the actual experience of being in this place.
When Jeremy asked us if we had any connection to this train station, it dawned on me. That old cassette recording of my grandfather speaking with his father contained a story of this exact train station. The story goes that my great grandfather met my great grandmother on the train leaving Kiev to come to the United States. She was traveling in first class and he had snuck up from his position in coach. They met, connected, but did not see each other again until later years when they were both in New York.
Seeing this train, suddenly connected me deeply to the personal experience of this train station. To know that years ago, a part of my family had started here gave me chills.
It brings me back to Jeremy's question of who owns the memory of a place. I felt connected to this place through a personal story, much more so than the connection I had as a commuter. I feel it is critical in my work with Hillel that one must be fully present. We must bring ourselves to our work to enable others to connect with their self in a personal and hopefully deeply meaningful way.
I'll finish this post a with two videos of Jeremy from our YouTube page...
More Songs About Buildings and Food
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 4:55:18 am | Comments (1)
Some random pictures based on a wonderful Talking Heads song...
Pickles at every meal!!!!!
Mikado cake, after I was cautioned away from the Bales cake....long story for another post.
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 8:41:11 pm | Comments (2)
As I started on the walk to Babi Yar today, I didn't know what I should be feeling. I know that my family history from my mother's side comes from Ukraine, specifically Kiev, but I didn't quite know how to approach this site of so much suffering and murder. I understood what I should feel at Sachsenhausen during last year's trip to Germany. There was a museum and pictures and artifacts and tangible memory, but this was different.
This small memorial was all that stood to represent the memory of over 100,000 people who were slaughtered by the Nazis in a pit behind the stone menorah.
After placing a small stone on the steps of the memorial, I slowly made my way over to the pit, to look into the abyss of where a part of my family was killed.
I stood, silently reflecting for some time. Torn between seeing nature and life in the context of so much death. I was really struggling to recall the faces of my family and I was troubled that I did not have a face to connect with for this place. I had seen pictures of my great-grandfather, the one who had escaped Ukraine before this and after so many of the pogroms. I recalled his voice on the cassette tape that my grandfather had recorded as a conversation about his life, the sole remaining memory of his voice. And yet, I still could not see the faces of my family. I thought of my mother, my grandfather and his father and tried to compile their faces into something approximating a memory but I could not.
I backed away from the site, unsure of what to think without a tangible connection.
It was then that I saw the lilac bush, standing after it had bloomed.
I didn't need to smell the fragrance, I didn't need to see the blossoms, but I had a distinct memory and a relation to all the beautiful lilacs I have seen in my life. Somehow, that was enough. Somehow it connected to my work in this conference to understand more about Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish Peoplehood in relation to the world around us.
In that moment of recalling the lilacs, I became at peace with the memory of a family I had not known. I didn't need to see their faces, but I could recall their life, their memory, their connection to me through the chain of history through my memory of the lilac.
Like the one that had bloomed so beautifully in my backyard this year.
In memory of Abraham Rudman, all of his family, and all whose lives were unjustly taken from them in senseless violence.
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 7:40:36 pm | Comments (0)
Wow, that was a couple of intense days! I'll add more pictures and stories tomorrow.
Plus, an update from Biana!
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Monday, May 24, 2010 at 4:18:15 pm | Comments (5)
After a minor flight delay, Biana and I took off from JFK for our 10 hour flight to Kiev. Hard to recall most of the flight but I got the whole plot of Leap Year without listening to a word and fell asleep trying to watch Crazy Heart.
We landed this morning. Funny thing, when we were on the plane we were wondering about how we would find our driver. I said, "Oh, there's probably a sign that says 'Jewish Peoplehood'." What do you know, a Ukranian man with a sign that says "Jewish Peoplehood" was waiting for us. "Sochnut?" That's it. Good thing we've had an Israel Fellow at Baruch for the past few years so I knew what Sochnut meant, despite my limited Hebrew. Sochnut means Jewish Agency for Israel, FYI.
Borispol International Airport
Welcome to Kyiv!
We got settled in the hotel pictured below (what a view!)...
Then I took Biana's lead for lunch choices. It didn't take much effort to pass up StarDogs (at least that's what it supposedly is translated to mean).
This looked like a nice place to sit and enjoy the flowers and the shedding cottonwood trees.
Borscht was recommended but my eyes were certainly bigger than my stomach as I ended up with herring, potatoes, and pickled veggies.
It's funny, no matter where I am, no matter what cuisine, I can't pass up the pickled vegetable plate.
I recognized Yonatan Ariel and a few others who came into the same restaurant after our lunch so we sat with them and chatted. Thank fully Biana helped us with the menu ordering! :)
We are now off to have dinner with Baruch alumni and current JDC Jewish Service Corps Volunteer, Yelena Azriyel!!!
Here are my plans for later tonight, catching up with the rest of the world. :)
Baruch Goes to Ukraine!
Posted by: Matt Vogel on Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 6:38:22 pm | Comments (1)
Coming soon...a blog from our trip to the Third International Task Force Meeting on Jewish Peoplehood Education and Programming in Kiev, Ukraine!
Hillel at the Israeli Consulate
Posted by: Unknown on Friday, December 25, 2009 at 2:28:31 pm | Comments (0)
Israeli Consulate Hosts Hillel Fete
December 17, 2009
Hillel joined with the Israeli Consulate in New York and the UJA-Federation of New York in a Chanukah reception to celebrate their partnership in fostering Israel advocacy and education on campuses around the world and particularly in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Consul General Asaf Shariv expressed his gratitude for Hillel’s work and reinforced the Consulate’s commitment to providing resources in support of Hillel’s academic initiatives and cultural outreach. He extended an open invitation for future collaboration to bring Israeli music, authors, and speakers to local campuses.
Jerry Levin, chair of the Board of UJA-Federation of New York, paid tribute to Hillel adding that he was inspired to meet with the young Jewish leaders of today and tomorrow.
Steve Greenberg, vice chair of Hillel’s Board of Directors and chair of the Development Committee, said that by working together to reinforce young Jews’ attachment to Israel, Hillel - with the support of the Consulate and the UJA Federation of New York - is doing its part to ensure the future of our global Jewish community.
The evening concluded with the lighting of the Chanukah menorah by six students from local Hillels. Before they kindled the flames, the students spoke about Hillel’s impact on their Jewish identity and their connection to Israel.
“From simple ‘welcome’ signs on the first day of school to Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trips, from student-run initiatives to Alternative Breaks, their stories reinforced Hillel’s ability to create meaningful Jewish experiences on campus and powerful Jewish memories to support a lasting relationship with Jewish life,” said Hillel Executive Vice President Mark Medin who represented Hillel at the event.
Posted by: Unknown on Friday, October 9, 2009 at 10:03:34 pm | Comments (0)
Autumn 1909, one century ago, was a rather uneventful time. Compared to traumatic events that took place during the previous High Holiday seasons, and the horrible atrocities that would soon be unleashed, Tishrei 5670 (September-October 1909) was relatively quiet.
As it turns out, that fall was a deceptive lull in the early years of the 20th Century. Beneath the surface and behind the scenes, violent forces were simmering which would soon erupt and throw the benign century into bloodiest century in all of history.
Despite the apparent calm that holiday season, the illustrious Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber), a grandmaster sage and mystic, was not oblivious to the impending storm. In his classic style, the Rebbe delivered another of his timeless and timely masterpieces, which presented a cosmic snapshot of events to come, coupled with a profound perspective on how to approach and take on the challenges ahead.
That Rosh Hashana, one hundred years ago, the Rebbe Rashab began delivering the series of discourses, titled "Hemshech Eter" (eter is an acronym for the year 5670, tov resh ayin). The series would span for nearly six months, until the winter of 1910, and would consist of twenty-seven discourses, delivered both live (in Yiddish) and in writing (in Hebrew), and later published in a complete volume.
Couched in Talmudic language and mystical terms, the Rebbe laid out in the first part of this series of discourses two critical elements that allow us to understand and prepare for every situation, even the most difficult of circumstances.
We will focus on the discourse delivered exactly one century this week, on Shemini Atzeret 1909 (the sixth discourse in this series). In this dissertation the Rebbe Rashab explains the difference between the two holidays that flow one into the other, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The Torah instructs us that following the celebration of the seven days of Sukkot, "the eighth day shall be a time of retreat (Shemini Atzeret) for you when you shall do no mundane work."
What is the significance of this eighth day? And why does it follow the seven days of Sukkot?
Explains the Rebbe Rashab that the secret power of the eighth day lays in the expression "(the eighth day shall be a time of retreat) for you."
We each have two aspects to our lives: Our outer lives and our inner lives. The things we do to affect the environment and the world around us. And the things we do within our own intimate selves.
The two consecutive holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, explains the Rebbe, represent two primary prototypes of human initiative that each one of us has to be involved in - the first external and the second internal.
The purpose for which we were placed on Earth, why our souls were sent down to this material plane, is in order that we illuminate the moral and spiritual darkness of our physical world. This is the primary focus of Sukkot, when we take on not just our own personal lives, but also the welfare of our communities and societies. We dwell in Sukkot, made of vegetation of the world, we pray and commit to improve and refine the nations of the world, we dance and celebrate in public, we engage, connect and unite with others.
Following this seven-day immersion in the affairs of e the world, we then arrive to the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, when we enter into our intimate space, "a time of retreat for you," when we are alone with G-d, "let them be for you alone, and no strangers with you" (Proverbs 5:17), and we are not involved in any "mundane work" of refining the world.
After refining the entire world during Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret is the single day when everything else is put aside and we are alone and intimate with the King, without any strangers present, for one last time before entering the dark, cold days of winter.
In mystical terms: Sukkot is related to the role of the "reshimu" - the cosmic residue that was created by the great "tzimtzum," which concealed the infinite Divine energy to allow the emergence of finite "containers" that would be able to receive this energy. Think of it as letters and words that convey profound wisdom, whose intensity completely overrides and submerges the actual letters in a powerful light, which don't allow the letters visibility. The tzimtzum conceals the brilliant wisdom, leaving a "residue" - a jumbled up assortment of letters (which are alternately compared to a summary, a blueprint, signs and hints to something deeper), which now can emerge and be revealed, but only due to the concealment of the intense brilliance. Like letters that remain visible after the light recedes, the "reshimu" is considered to be the first "container" - the root of all the "containers" in existence, which now have to begin the long and arduous process of reclaiming the hidden wisdom hidden within these residual "letters" and "containers."
On Sukkot the main focus is to enter the world of the "containers," in all their dimensions, from the subtlest to the most callous, to refine and illuminate them with Divine energy. After seven days we then retreat into - and retain ("atzeret") - the inner sanctums and chambers of the infinite energy and essential light that is above and beyond the "reshimu" and the tzimtzum - a day that is dedicated "for you" alone.
Though it would not mitigate the tzimtzum-induced horrible events to come in the first half of the 20th century, it is a bit empowering to know that we have the ability to not only not be destroyed by the darkness, but to actually illuminate it.
The Rebbe's elucidation of the tzimtzum could help people, at least cognitively and emotionally, face the gloom to come, knowing that no darkness can vanquish the spirit. In the Rebbe Rashab's own words (in the previous Sukkot discourse): "We cannot say that the objective of the tzimtzum is to eradicate the light, G-d forbid, because what purpose is served by the removal of light, and we are told that the world was ‘not created to be empty and chaotic but to be inhabited' (Isaiah 45:18)... the purpose of the concealment is that the light should then be drawn into the finite parameters of our universe, and this happens when the light is filtered through the reshimu, which carries the infinite into the finite..."
As the clouds of doom were gathering over the European horizons, one can only imagine the strength and courage imparted to all those who heard the Rebbe Rashab explaining the potency of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret back in that autumn of 2009. No words can describe or minimize the harshness of the 20th century. But as challenging as those harsh times were, the Rebbe Rashab's words must have gathered much confidence and power knowing that these holidays infuse us with both the ability to transcend all the world's troubles, to enter an "inner" sanctum reserved "for you" alone, as well as to illuminate the dark universe.
In our time as well, though we are blessed to face far smaller challenges, we too have much to learn from Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Whether we are concerned with our uncertain economy and our future security, whether we are frightened by others fears and unknowns, whether we are anxious about our relationships and other personal ghosts, come Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and we are told that these days bring us an unprecedented gift from above. They enable us to realize that we are not victims of circumstances; we can and must illuminate the shadows around us. And they allow us to access an inner place (which is dedicated "for you" alone) that can never be affected by the storms raging around us.
To take control of your life requires discerning a clear distinction between both parts of our beings. First, the message of Sukkot: we must know that we were sent to this world, each of us charged with the mission to illuminate our surroundings. Darkness exists for a reason - so that you can dispel it with your unique light and energy. Second, the message of Shemini Atzeret: There is a place reserved for "you alone." In the depths of your soul resides a private, intimate essence, where no intruder - physical, psychological or spiritual - can enter. This is your inner sanctum where you and only you and G-d reside. Nothing can wound or even touch that connection.
A practical way to actualize these resources is to dedicate time, as the holidays wind down and we enter the new year, to focus on these two dimensions of your life. Identify elements that reflect each one of the two, don't allow their boundaries to be blurred and spill into each other - know clearly when you are focusing on improving the people and the world around you and when you are entering into your intimate space. And above all, designate time to nourish both these responsibilities.
Some food for thought as we reflect on a century old discourse, that comes with warmest regards from the Rebbe Rashab. As we conclude Sukkot (this Friday) and celebrate Shemini Atzeret (this Saturday), we can glean much from these Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret thoughts.
And then - with this intimate and invincible power of Shemini Atzeret - "for you" alone - we have much reason to dance all night and day on Simchat Torah.