Bereishit -subduing the earth or serving her – not slaves but co-creators to protect and nurture our world

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’  (Genesis 1:28)

The stories of creation found in the first chapters of the book of Genesis provide the foundation for the myth of human ownership of the world; something which has allowed us to feel ourselves permitted to exploit and use the natural world for our own benefit.  And no verse has been quite so powerful in this myth as the one quoted above – translating the verbs as humanity “subduing / ruling / dominating” the earth.

But this reading is, at best, a partial understanding of the texts of Creation, and I would like to offer a more nuanced and less literalist view.

To begin – the verbs whose roots are

כבש   רדד  / רדה

Have multiple meanings, but for each of them the base meaning from which subdue/dominate arises is the physical act of treading down/ trampling /spreading out.  It would not be too far a literary stretch in the context of the words coming before – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – to read the next part of the verse as “and stretch out/make pathways over her (the earth), and stretch [your reach] over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing on the earth.  The root כבש

Is used today to describe roads and pathways – the methods by which we extend our ability to travel the earth.

But should this be a “spreading out” too far for some readers, one must also be aware of the context of this verse – both historically in terms of other earlier creation myths, and textually in the Book of Genesis.

Enumah Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation, describes the creation of humankind like this:

“Blood will I form and cause bone to be
Then will I set up a “lullu” [savage], ‘Man’ shall be his name!
Yes, I will create savage Man!
(Upon him) shall the services of the gods be imposed
That they may be at rest.”

For the Babylonians, the creation of human beings is about them being the slaves of the divinities, freeing the gods from the actual work of the world.  Human beings would work the earth, and provide the food and drink and other necessities or desires of the gods through sacrifices and libations.

It is this mythic story that informs the biblical creation stories, and some of the dynamic of owner/owned from the Enumah Elish may be found in the biblical text – but this is a very different creation story, with the human being created ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, and the self-sufficient God going on to offer the plant based foods for all the newly created beings, both human and animal.

This is also not the only creation story in Bible, and one cannot read the first iteration in Chapter 1 without the second iteration in Chapter 2 – the story of the Garden of Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

And the Eternal God took the human, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it

The verbs here are quite different

עבד שמר

Mean literally to serve and to guard/protect.

So even if we took the verbs in chapter one to mean “to rule/to subdue” the earth, here in chapter two that dimension is mitigated greatly. The role of the paradigmatic human being is that of carer for the earth, serving it rather than exploiting it.

Any power of the ownership implied in the first story must now be understood to be that of the obligation to nurture and guard something that is precious to God. To work with God (rather than for the gods) is to have an authority and role in creation, it gives no permission to use or exploit without care or consideration for the earth and its future.

The rabbinic tradition clearly understands this – and reminds us that we are not to exceed our powers, not to selfishly take and exploit and damage in order to meet our own desires and needs – indeed this would bring us back full circle to the Enumah Elish and the selfish greedy lazy and thoughtless gods. Famously in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read

“Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted? When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. “ (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Read together, the two creation stories provide a picture of the complex and important relationship between humanity, God and nature.  God, having created the world to be self-sustaining, is still involved through the work of human beings. We are, as ever, the hands of God in the world. We can manage and care for the natural world, sometimes – as in a garden- having to be creative in order to get the best results. Any gardener will tell about the importance of pruning, of digging up weeds by the roots,  of dead heading or thinning plants – all things that may seem “heavy handed” but ultimately provide the best environment.

Is our role to subdue the world or to spread out within it, causing fruitfulness and the fullness of nature?  I would suggest that the long standing myth of our being the pinnacle of creation meaning we have the right to dominate the world is a misunderstanding at a very deep level. To serve and to protect the earth – it is for this we were created, and this is how we most profoundly embody the idea of our being ‘b’tzelem Elohim”

Bereishit: sottomettere la terra o servirla, non schiavi ma co-creatori per proteggere e nutrire il nostro mondo

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

E Dio li benedisse; e Dio stesso disse loro: Prolificate, moltiplicatevi, empite la terra e rendetevela soggetta; dominate sui pesci del mare, e sui volatili del cielo e su tutti gli animali che si muovono sulla terra.” (Genesi 1:28)

Le storie della creazione che si trovano nei primi capitoli del libro della Genesi forniscono le basi per il mito della proprietà umana del mondo: qualcosa che ci ha permesso di sentirci autorizzati a sfruttare e usare il mondo naturale a nostro vantaggio. E nessun verso è stato così potente in questo mito quanto quello sopra citato, per tradurre i verbi relativi all’agire dell’umanità in “sopraffare, controllare, dominare” la terra.

Ma questa lettura è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, una comprensione parziale dei testi della Creazione, e vorrei offrire una visione più sfumata e meno letterale.

Per cominciare, i verbi le cui radici sono  רדה / רדד  כבש  hanno significati multipli, ma per ognuno di essi il significato base da cui emerge ‘sottomettere o dominare’ è l’atto fisico di schiacciare, calpestare, spargere. Non sarebbe troppo una forzatura letteraria nel contesto delle parole che precedono ‘siate fecondi, moltiplicate e riempite la terra’ leggere la parte successiva del verso come “e allungatevi, percorretela (la terra), e allungate [la vostra portata] sui pesci del mare e sugli uccelli del cielo e su ogni cosa vivente sulla terra”.

La radice כבש oggi è usata per descrivere strade e percorsi, i metodi con cui estendiamo la nostra capacità di viaggiare sulla terra.

Ma se questo dovesse essere un “allargamento” eccessivo per alcuni lettori, si deve anche essere consapevoli del contesto di questo versetto: sia storicamente, in termini di altri miti della creazione precedente, sia testualmente, nel Libro della Genesi.

Enumah Elish, il mito babilonese della creazione, descrive la creazione dell’umanità in questo modo:

“Formerò il sangue e farò esistere l’osso

Quindi creerò un “lullu” [selvaggio], “Uomo” sarà il suo nome!

Sì, creerò un uomo selvaggio!

(Su di lui) saranno imposti i servizi degli dei

Che possano essere in pace.”

Per i babilonesi, la creazione di esseri umani riguarda il fatto che essi sono gli schiavi delle divinità, liberando così gli dei dal lavoro reale del mondo. Gli esseri umani lavorerebbero la terra fornendo cibo e bevande e altre necessità o desideri degli dei attraverso sacrifici e libagioni.

Questa storia mitica, presente nel contesto in cui vennero scritte le storie della creazione biblica, e alcune delle dinamiche proprietario/proprietà dell’Enumah Elish possono essere trovate nel testo biblico, ma questa è una storia della creazione molto diversa, con l’essere umano creato ‘b’ tzelem Elohim’ e il Dio autosufficiente che continua a offrire alimenti a base vegetale per tutti gli esseri appena creati, sia umani che animali.

Questa non è nemmeno l’unica storia della creazione nella Bibbia, e non si può leggere la prima iterazione nel capitolo 1 senza la seconda, la ripetizione nel capitolo 2: la storia del Giardino dell’Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

E l’Eterno Dio prese l’uomo e lo pose nel Giardino di Eden perché lo coltivasse e lo custodisse.

I verbi qui sono abbastanza diversi: שמר עבד, significano letteralmente servire e fare la guardia, proteggere.

Quindi, anche se abbiamo considerato i verbi nel primo capitolo per significare “governare/ sottomettere” la terra, qui nel secondo capitolo quella dimensione è notevolmente mitigata. Il ruolo dell’essere umano paradigmatico è quello di prendersi cura della terra, servendola piuttosto che sfruttandola.

Qualsiasi potere della proprietà implicito nella prima storia deve ora essere inteso come quello dell’obbligo di nutrire e custodire qualcosa di prezioso per Dio. Lavorare con Dio (piuttosto che per gli dei) significa avere un’autorità e un ruolo nella creazione, non dà il permesso di usare o sfruttare senza cura o considerazione alcuna la terra e il suo futuro.

La tradizione rabbinica lo comprende chiaramente, e ci ricorda che non dobbiamo eccedere i nostri poteri, non dobbiamo prendere egoisticamente e sfruttare e danneggiare per soddisfare i nostri desideri e bisogni, in effetti questo ci riporterebbe al punto di partenza dell’Enumah Elish e gli dei egoisti, avidi, pigri e sconsiderati. Notoriamente nel Midrash Kohelet Rabbà leggiamo:

“Guarda il lavoro di Dio: per chi può raddrizzare ciò che ha distorto? Quando l’Uno, Santo e Benedetto, creò il primo essere umano, Dio lo prese e lo condusse attorno a tutti gli alberi del Giardino dell’Eden e disse: ‘Guarda le mie opere, quanto sono belle e lodevoli! E tutto ciò che ho creato, è stato creato per te. Fai attenzione a non corrompere e distruggere il mio mondo: se lo corrompi, non c’è nessuno che lo ripari dopo di te.’” (Kohelet Rabbà 7:13)

Lette insieme, le due storie della creazione forniscono un quadro del complesso e importante rapporto tra umanità, Dio e natura. Dio, avendo creato il mondo per essere autosufficiente, è ancora coinvolto attraverso il lavoro degli esseri umani. Siamo, come sempre, le mani di Dio nel mondo. Possiamo gestire e prenderci cura del mondo naturale, a volte, come in un giardino, dovendo essere creativi per ottenere i migliori risultati. Ogni giardiniere parlerà dell’importanza della potatura, dello scavo delle erbe infestanti dalle radici, della selezione o del diradamento delle piante, tutte cose che possono sembrare “pesanti” ma alla fine forniscono l’ambiente migliore.

Il nostro ruolo è sottomettere il mondo o spargerci al suo interno, causando fecondità e pienezza della natura? Suggerirei che l’antico mito del nostro essere l’apice della creazione, nel senso che abbiamo il diritto di dominare il mondo, è un malinteso a un livello molto profondo. Siamo stati creati per servire e proteggere la terra, ed è così che incarniamo profondamente l’idea del nostro essere “b’tzelem Elohim”.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Kedoshim Tihyu: Holiness lies in the interconnected world, in our relationships and our responsibilities

Parashat Kedoshim takes its name from the phrase it begins with: “Kedoshim tihyu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” – You will be Kadosh, as I the Eternal your God Am Kadosh.  (Leviticus 19:2)

The root K.D.Sh appears 152 times in the Book of Leviticus, and while usually translated as “separate/distinct” or “holy”, it has a richer and more complex life within Jewish thought than to be boundaried in such a way. It is difficult to fully explicate this word, in part because Kedushah is an attribute of the essence of God, and something we human beings are to pursue in our behaviour and being, the result of such pursuit is attachment to the Divine, understood in mystical tradition as the ultimate goal of all our spiritual strivings.

The 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu deVidas explains in his mystical and meditative work (Reishit Chochma) that fleeing evil and doing good creates within us the ability to receive holiness from God. Holiness is a Divine response to our actions, and inhabits and shapes our soul, creating the possibility for communion with God.

Holiness exists in two different frameworks in bible: one is the sanctity of the priesthood and temple rituals which is the focus of much of this book of Leviticus; the second is the sanctity of peoplehood, of the whole community, as is underscored with the first verse of this sidra – “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You (voi) shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).”. It is this second framework that speaks to us. Holiness is an aspiration for a community much more than a state for priest and temple. The focus moves a little away from the ritual rooted in the sacrificial system and more towards the ethical rooted in community living.

Avoiding evil and doing good seems to the main thrust of much of what is contained in the apex of the holiness school of guidance, found in Leviticus chapter 19.(Full holiness Code found Leviticus 17-26) According to Sefer haChinuch, there are 13 positive and 38 negative mitzvot in sidra kedoshim, guiding us towards doing good things, and away from improper behaviour.

We are used to categorising these mitzvot (commandments) in Kedoshim as either Ritual ones or Ethical ones, but there is another way to see these imperatives that does not divide them into different and separate types, but functioning instead together, as part of a whole and complex system.

The commandments that guide us towards holiness can be understood as being ecological in structure –together they are a description of the web of relationships that unite the people, the land, the environment including both flora and fauna, and God.  Together they both set the balance that allows each component to flourish, each constituent to be in harmonious relationship.

There are curious parallels that signal the interconnectedness if one looks – for example the law of pe’ah forbids us to cut the edges of the land (19:9) and the edges of the human head and beard (19:27). People and land are treated in the same way, albeit for different motivations.

The section of bible known to us as “holiness code” (Leviticus 17-26) can be understood as a coherent and unified corpus, which aims to bring together –  through varied and diverse subject matter, terminology and historical perspective – the connection of people and land. Specifically here people and land which each have a distinct relationship with God. The people are to aspire towards ideal behaviour; the land is to embody the sacred.  Each generation is to learn and understand the principles that underlie this text, to draw out and fulfil those principles in their own time and their own context. The texts play with time. This is the generation of the desert being told how to behave in the land they have settled. We are simultaneously at Sinai shortly after the exodus from Egypt, in the desert as a travelling and unrooted people, and in the Land of Israel as the people who are responsible for the welfare of both land and society.

The effect of these time distortions within the text is to reinforce the timelessness of the message and of those to whom the message is addressed – to remind us that each generation of the people Israel is to understand that we too are part of the web of relationship. Just as the Pesach Haggadah reminds us that each of us is to consider ourselves part of the generation that was freed from Egyptian slavery, so here we are reminded that the relationship between people, land and God is one we are firmly held within.

This year the message of the ecology, the web of the relationships and the connections between plants, animals, people, and the environment, has never been so powerful to me, and the balances and imbalances between these relationships cry out for our attention.

We are living in a time of climate change happening with unprecedented speed. Everything is being affected and generally not for the good of the world. Be it the insect populations diminishing or disappearing due to insecticides, or else the changes in weather which have disrupted their breeding; or the crops blighted by drought or to-heavy rains; be it the animals whose habitats are changing around them, leaving them ill equipped to survive, or the people who face tsunami or cyclones, or drought or blistering heat – we are once again forced to pay attention to the interdependability of our world, and to note how our behaviour is unbalancing not only our own context but the future world of our children.

When one reads this section of Leviticus not to tease out the ritual or ethical behaviours we feel ourselves commanded to follow, but to become more fully conscious of what it means to hear the imperative to holiness that we must pursue in order to come closer to God, it is impossible to ignore how the impetus to Kedushah is situated within the web of relationships between people, animals and land. The book of Genesis (2:15) tells us we have a responsibility to steward the land, to keep it in good order and fully functioning, we have to work it responsibly and mindfully. The book of Deuteronomy reminds us that should we not care properly for the land and for the people we will be expelled from living in the land, reminds us too that God is watching how people treat the land that is so special to God (Deut 11:12) And all the books of bible repeatedly remind us that we are not inheritors of this world by right, but that we are privileged to live here and have a role we must play, relationships we must nurture, transmission we must be part of. How we live our lives matters not just to us or our close family or generation, how we live our lives is part of the ecology of the world and how it will thrive – or not

Imitatio Dei, the imitation of the attributes of God, holds a central place in Jewish thinking, right from the creation of people b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. We cannot absorb God nor become God, we cannot understand or encompass God, but we still have the obligation to come closer to Kedushah. The Talmud phrases it best, I think, like this:  “Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina said: (Deuteronomy 13:5) “After God you shall walk.” And is it possible for a person to walk after the Presence of God? And doesn’t it already say (Deuteronomy 4:24) “Because God is a consuming flame”? Rather, [it means] to walk after the characteristics of God. Just as God clothed the naked [in the case of Adam and Chava]… so, too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God visited the sick [in the case of Avraham after his brit milah]…so, too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God comforted the mourners [in the case of Yitzhak after Avraham’s passing]…so, too, should you comfort the mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God buried the dead [in the case of Moshe]…so, too, should you bury the dead” (Sotah 14a:3-4)

It is a lovely description of how to imitate God to make the world a better place. But as our liturgy reminds us three times a day in the Aleinu prayer, it is our duty “letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai” To repair and maintain the world with the sovereignty of God. This is bigger than the cases suggested by Rav Hama – for the sovereignty of God is more than the relationships between people, important as they are. Instead I think the phrase is referring to the Kedushah we find in the Holiness Section of Leviticus – we must maintain and repair the relationships not simply bein Adam v’Chavero (between people) but bein Adam v’Olam – between people and the living beings – animal and vegetable – on this earth.

How we treat the earth – the rainforests with its trees often logged mercilessly and the environment of the animals who live there decimated and unsustainable; the rivers we clog with chemicals or detritus, the seas filled with plastic and becoming toxic to so many who swim in them, be they small turtles or huge orcas; the air in cities that are filled with pollutants, the fields we drench with fertilizers or insecticides, the animals and birds we so carelessly damage, the environment we so thoughtlessly injure, the casual littering and the mindless consumption of limited resources – all of this is in direct contradiction to what we are told about Kedushah, the holiness we should be striving to attain.

In London this week a 16 year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, came to speak to Parliament and also to the many protestors of Climate Change who brought our cities to a standstill as they sought to persuade the government, by non-violent action, to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to zero. The group “Extinction Rebellion” which has a Jewish section also held a Seder outside the Parliament buildings, linking the traditional ten plagues to the many threats to the earth if greenhouse gas emissions are not massively reduced, and global warming brought below two degrees.  They linked too to the damage to seas and air and land we are increasingly seeing happen. (The group is also protesting in Milan, Rome and Torino and in other countries too).

Reactions were mixed to the protests – in part because of the inconvenience caused to daily living, in part to vested interests, in part to political games-playing. But what became clearer to me was not just the science the protesters were drawing our attention to, but the religious values we have been ignoring for so long.

For when we categorise mitzvot into ethical or ritual, meaningful or opaque, spiritual or mundane, we mask over something else – the inter-relatedness of our world, which the mitzvot are designed to help  us to understand if only we would pay attention, the web of relationships between us and our environment, between animals and plants and humans and land and God.

When God tells the people that we must strive for Kedushah, an essential attribute of the divine, we often put this into the domain of the heavens, and forget that we live on the earth. We forget that the web of relationships is planet wide, that it involves trees and plants and soil and animals and insects….   Holiness demands from us the awareness of these relationships, and a response that values them.  “Le’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – to maintain and repair the world with divine ruling” – that is out task, and it is not in the heavens or far from us, but in our everyday interactions with the created world.

(sermon given 2019)

 

 

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)