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From the Rabbi's Study


A Season of Thanksgiving


After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Sukkot for seven days...for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. -Deuteronomy 16:13-15 

When describing the holiday of Sukkot, the Torah depicts a harvest festival, as the summer turns to fall, where ancient Israel gathers to celebrate the bounty that God has bestowed upon them. While the word "thanks" is not used, the tenor of this celebration is one of great joy and thanksgiving. So overwhelming was the nature and celebration of this fall harvest festival, that later rabbis just called Sukkot, "the Festival." Whenever the Talmud and rabbis refer to the Festival, they are speaking about the harvest festival of Sukkot. 

Late in the fall of the year 164 BCE, the Hasmoneans - popularly called the Maccabees - finally conquered Jerusalem, retook, and rededicated the temple. It is little wonder that they felt an existential loss that they had missed the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot with all its rituals, rites, and joy. According to the Book of Maccabees (II Maccabees 10:6-7), The People realized how during the time of Sukkot, they had been "wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals" and not able to celebrate as they would want. Though a bit late, they celebrated the eight day holiday of Sukkot as they rededicated the Temple with joy and thanksgiving to God. Indeed, this late eight day celebration of Sukkot and rededication of the Temple is one of the reasons we celebrate eight days of Hanukkah. 

Over a thousand years later, another celebration of Sukkot is said to have given rise to another holiday that we observe, Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony landed in Massachusetts in 1620 and struggled to survive in their new environment. Over the summer, they were able to farm and hunt and provide for their community. In a letter dated December 11, 1621, Edward Winslow described a three-day event held after the crops were harvested. This celebration is commonly called "the first Thanksgiving."

It was not until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Lincoln helped pass a law making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Over the years, Thanksgiving has taken root as "the American Holiday," but its roots are as old as the Bible. Many believe that the Pilgrims, steeped as they were in the Bible, modeled their Thanksgiving on the Biblical harvest festival of Sukkot.

What can we learn from these historical "Thanksgivings"?

From the Maccabees, we learn that it is never too late to offer our thanks to God for all the blessings in our lives. From the Pilgrims, we learn that giving thanks is not tied to one land, one people, or one history, but is something that unites all humanity.

So as we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, let us take a moment to thank God for the blessings in our lives, to thank each other for all the goodness friends and family offer us, and appreciate all the blessings of liberty that we enjoy in America. 

With thanks to God for all our blessings and wishes for a meaningful Thanksgiving,

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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The Last Kaddish and the First Kaddish


This past Tuesday was my wife Elana's last day of saying Kaddish for her mother. The last Kaddish was at Minha late in the afternoon. Elana discovered that there is a special name for the last day someone says Kaddish for a parent. It is called "Yom Hafsakah" - the Day of Stopping. There is no special ritual associated with the last day of Kaddish, but after eleven months, there are many emotions that go with it.

Jewish rituals are meant to help us experience and cherish life. Such rituals like bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings are easily appreciated. Some, like Jewish mourning rituals, come at the most difficult times, but serve a great necessary purpose. They provide us with a way to mourn and ultimately, a way to live.

In this week's Torah portion, Haye Sarah, we read of the first reaction to death in the Bible. Many generations have come and gone, but throughout the early chapters of Genesis, we have yet to see a reaction to death. That changes with the death of Sarah.   

Sarah and Abraham have been through a lot. They have moved together from a far off place and come to make a home in the Land of Canaan. They have been tested by life, but remained together through it all. When it seems they may have lost everything, God ensures they will continue, and long after they give up hope for a child, God tells them they will have Isaac. Now after all this, Sarah has died.

We see Abraham for the first time without Sarah, and he struggles. He has to procure a burial spot, and bury his wife and he mourns. While the Torah is normally scarce in describing emotional outbursts, it tells us that as Abraham mourns for Sarah, he cries for her. While this was millennia before the Mourner's Kaddish was written, Abraham's tears served as his unique personal Kaddish, the First Kaddish, and his primal reaction to death.

As Abraham is a role model for faith, in his mourning he becomes an empathetic, human figure, who becomes a model for confronting death. At a time of pain and loss, Abraham cries. His tears are an outward representation of his inner pain. He shows us that our emotions are real and valid.

But it is after he cries, that we see Abraham's ultimate reaction to his very personal loss. He sends his servant to find a wife for his son Issac. Though it might seem strange and out of place, this action is an act of affirmation of the future. Abraham's final act of mourning is to look forward to the future. It is this behavior that throughout our history has been an example to our people. At a time of loss, we mourn, we cry, and then we move forward and live.

As it was after Abraham and his first "Kaddish", so it is with Elana after her last Kaddish, and for all of us. After a period of mourning, we move forward to live. While we always remember, we look forward and move to build a future for ourselves and our children. That was true for Abraham thousands of years ago, and remains true for us today.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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While much of the country was focusing on Washington this week, I kept an eye on the events in Israel.  In a predawn raid, Tuesday morning, the Israel Defense Forces launched a targeted attack on the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.  The operation was a success and Abu al-Ata, who Israel said was the "prime instigator" of terrorism from Gaza this past year, was assassinated. In response to this attack, Islamic Jihad launched 450 rockets and mortar shells into Southern and Central Israel over a 48 hour period.  Israel responded with precision attacks on Islamic Jihad strongholds, weapons facilities, and rocket launching teams in the Gaza Strip.  The attacks on Israel seemed to escalate and no one was sure how and when it would end, but with the help of Egypt, a ceasefire was brokered.

As I write this piece, the ceasefire seems to be holding, in spite of some sporadic rocket launchings against Israel this morning. Even with this ceasefire, schools in southern Israel will remain shuttered an additional day, on Friday, as a precaution. 

The past years have seemed like a series of ceasefires punctuated by attacks from and incursions into Gaza.  I do not think that any of us in America can even imagine what life is like for Israeli communities near Gaza and Palestinian communities in Gaza. 

It seems like ages ago, people talked of a peace process and peace talks, but it was a generation ago that Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty on the White House lawn, followed a few years later by a handshake and agreement signed by Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Over the past two decades, Intifadas and terror attacks, followed by reprisals, seem to have dashed talks about peace.  But as the saying goes, "it is always darkest before the dawn..."

In spite of what is happening, some are seeing rays of hope through the darkness.  In the current situation, it has not gone unnoticed that Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, did not join in or sanction the attacks on Israel. Also, Israel was careful not to attack Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip. Some are wondering if there is some cooperation between Hamas and Israel, or just mutual distrust for Islamic Jihad?  The real question is, is there anything that can be built on this current lack of hostility between Hamas and Israel?

Also, over the past years, Israel has increased its contacts with the Gulf States.  While Israel and its Arab neighbors have been at war for decades, there have been opportunities and moments of cooperation that raise hopes.   Earlier this week, an Israeli teen robotics team returned from the unofficial "Robotics Olympics" held in the United Arab Emirates.  Just two days ago, Israel announced it will be opening a pavilion and participating in the upcoming world's fair, Expo 2020 to be held in Dubai.

Is peace at hand? Clearly not, but the current situation, though not sustainable, can lead to a better solution and a peaceful coexistence in Israel and the Middle East. Hopefully, this ceasefire will hold, but the real hope is that something sustainable will be built on this ceasefire or the next.  In a country whose national anthem is Hatikvah, which literally means the hope, there must always be hope.

With prayers and wishes for a Shabbat Shalom, a peaceful Shabbat,


Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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