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)

Shavuot: the voice of God is heard in the voices of ALL the people. (Or women were at Sinai too, and at the kotel)

In a very few days we will be celebrating Shavuot, a festival of biblical origin which can lay claim to being  one of the most mysterious of our holy days. To begin with, it has no fixed date but instead we have to count towards it from the first day of the Omer, the bringing of a sheaf of the new barley harvest which must be offered in thanksgiving before the harvest can be used. In Leviticus 23 we read “And the Eternal said to Moses, Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, ‘When you are come into the land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, then you will bring the first omer of your harvest to the priest, and he will wave the omer before the Eternal for you to be accepted, on the morrow after the Sabbath, the priest will wave it…and you will not eat bread nor parched corn nor fresh corn until this day, until you have brought the offering of God, it is a statute forever…and you will count from the morrow after the Sabbath from the day that you brought the omer of waving, seven weeks shall be complete, until the morning after the seventh week you shall count fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to the Eternal” (9-16)

In this opaque text a few things stand out: That we must bring from the new harvest in thanksgiving to the Creator of all before we can eat from it. That we must count a period of fifty days from the bringing of one harvest (barley) till the next harvest (wheat), and that the fiftieth day is also to be a festival with full ritual panoply.

It is a feast of harvest, a festival of first fruits – but so are other festivals. It feels like there is something missing in the text, some other layer that was either so well known as to be pointless to explain, or something so deeply mysterious as to be impossible to explain.  Its name is also problematic – in the same chapter we are told of the festival of matza called Pesach and of the festival of booths called Succot but Shavuot – it just means weeks.

The lacunae were noticed very early on and if nature abhors a vacuum, rabbinic tradition refuses to allow one too, rushing to fill any apparent jump or void in text with explanation and midrash. So to begin – what is the date of Shavuot? Should it always be a Sunday, as it would be if we really counted seven weeks from the ‘morrow after the shabbat’    הַשַּׁבָּת  מִמָּחֳרַת

The Second Temple period was one of great disruption and great creativity. Two powerful groups – the Pharisees (forerunners of the Rabbinic tradition) and the Sadducees (political and priestly elite) differed as to the date of Shavuot. The Sadducees read the text literally – the counting began the day after the Shabbat, while the Pharisees interpreted it, specifically that the word “Sabbath” was a word meaning not just the seventh day, but also “festival”, specifically in is case the festival just described before the text quoted, and therefore the omer counting would begin the day after the first day of Pesach.  At a stroke Shavuot was linked to Pesach and with a little creative accounting with the days of the journey towards Mt Sinai the Rabbis could attach the events at Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the creation of peoplehood with Torah as its powerful identifier to this date. So Exodus linked to Revelation, Freedom to Responsibility, and Shavuot stopped being simply an agricultural festival on a date that could vary and became a fixed point – a high point – in our journey to Judaism.  Shavuot became zeman matan torahteinu – the time of the giving of our Torah – the oral as well as the written – and more than that became the date of the unbreakable covenant made between God and the Jewish people.

So by extension, Shavuot became understood to be the date that we became not just a people, but God’s people. God descended far enough from the heavens to build a different kind of relationship with us, offered us a gift in order to delineate that relationship. And the language of marriage came into play – God wooed us in the desert and brought us to Sinai where the ‘wedding’ took place. God plays the part of the groom, Israel of the bride, and the words of Hosea are used “I will betroth you to me for ever, I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, In love and compassion, I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will know the Eternal (Hosea 2:2.1-2.). The mystical tradition went so far as to create a wedding liturgy within the Shavuot service, and famously Israel Najara, the poet and mystic of Sfat, created a ketubah to be read before the Torah reading in which God as bridegroom and Israel as bride are symbolically betrothed.

Some texts see the marriage as between God (groom) and Israel (bride) with the Torah as the binding contract; others see it as between Israel as groom and Torah as bride, with God as witness and the Oral Torah with Shabbat as dowry. Whichever role the participants took, the imagery of the marriage relationship is one of the most potent of the festival, and it points to the power that the rabbinic tradition saw in the marriage relationship.

The people of Israel as the bride of God, the covenant of marriage being marked with Torah, with Shabbat, with gifts that bring us closer to God – it is extraordinary in so many ways.  The position of the woman in this image – that she is Israel, that Israel is fundamentally feminine, and that the relationship is one of real love and partnership between both parties to the agreement -this is the ideal of marriage. Right from the creation stories in Genesis, where God created men and women at the same time, or where God created woman to be ezer k’negdo, a partner and help who was equal and in dynamic tension to the man, the relationship of marriage between two companions in bible and in the early rabbinic world was real partnership and both parties had their own agency and autonomy which contributed to a strong and confident enterprise.

Quite how we got to the position today from this ideal and idealised partnership to women being marginalised and disempowered in many areas of ‘traditional’ Judaism is a long and painful journey.  How has Israel, the bride of God, relegated its own women to behind a mechitza, distanced us from prayer and from learning, spun stories of idealisation that turn the Shavuot ideas on their head, (for example those about the special spirituality of women which means they don’t need to perform mitzvot). Over time there has been a persistent and incremental and continuing removal of women from the discourse of partnership, from the public space and from the partnership which is developed and rooted in the Shavuot mythology of the marriage between God and Israel.  At Sinai the mountain trembled and the people trembled and all the people stood together at the foot of the mountain and all the people answered together saying “everything that God has spoken we will do” as the voice of the shofar was heard and God answered Moses with a voice.  Voices mingling and speaking and answering – God’s voice, Moses’ voice, the voice of all the people, the voice of the shofar. But now it seems that some voices have precedence and other voices must be stilled. After generations of lying fallow and unused in Talmud the dictum of kol isha has surfaced in rabbinic thinking as a prop to their wish to remove women’s voices from their hearing.

Yesterday on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the women of the wall (WOW)  in Jerusalem held their service for the new month early in the morning. 80 women and more prayed together from their hearts, welcoming the new month and the upcoming festival where Torah was given to ALL the people at Sinai. The prayer was respectful and peaceful and yet – Lesley Sachs, the Director of WOW was detained with the Torah scroll immediately following RH Sivan prayers. Despite a quiet prayer, Sachs was held by police for “disturbing the public order”.  The man who oversees the administration of the wall Rabbi Rabinowitz told journalists that she had smuggled the Torah scroll in under her skirt. An extraordinarily offensive accusation that was provably untrue – she was wearing trousers. But this insight into the mind of the ‘traditional’ rabbi tells us a lot as to why women’s voices are being silenced – what exists under a woman’s skirt is somehow terrifying, our sexuality must be controlled and restrained, a woman’s voice is her nakedness/lewdness in the minds of those who distort the biblical quotation (from a woman’s voice is her sweetness)

We are approaching the anniversary of what happened at Sinai when ALL the people witnessed the divine theophany and ALL the people accepted Torah.  This Shavuot it is even more important that we make sure that ALL the voices can be heard in our public spaces and places, in teaching and learning, in work and in play.  For if God chose to do to Israel what some in Israel choose to do to women, then the marriage must surely be voided on grounds of complete deviation from the agreement.  The countdown is nearly over, the last days of the omer are here. It has been a period of reflection and quietness, readying ourselves for the revelation. Let’s hope the revelation takes us back to our roots, and that the voice of women in prayer and learning will once again be heard with the voice of men doing the same.

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Behar: to treat with respect is the essence of holiness

The bible is very clear – everything we have belongs to God and is at best ‘on loan’ to us. And we have to treat it properly and with respect. Even the land must be allowed to rest, rather than be worked to produce more and more. Besides giving the land a chance to return to a good condition, the sabbatical year also meant that all people, whether they were rich or poor, would find themselves dependant on what the land produced naturally, as all of them would have to collect and gather the food that was there, rather than the usual experience of the richer ones harvesting a good amount and leaving a proportion in the field for the poor to glean. This would have been a transformational experience in that the ones who always had food would become aware of the conditions the poor faced all the time, and one imagines that the bible hoped this learning would motivate them to help support the needy.

Leviticus is a book that is primarily about the ritual system and how holiness is created, and reading some of the narrative here we become aware of the agenda of social justice that is threaded through it, how the world cannot be made perfect if justice is not available for all. Even during the shemitta year, the year when the land is to rest and recuperate, the obligation for tzedakah for the poor continues – in other words just because you are tightening your belts, you don’t forget the needs of others who rely on the help they get from society in order to survive.

Everything we have belongs to God and is, at best, on loan to us. When we harvest the land we leave food for the poor. When we help a fellow human being who is in financial difficulties we give them their dignity and are not to charge interest on any loan we give. The laws remind us that even the money we have is not ours to use as we please. It is a conditional loan, to be partially used for the benefit of others.

As we look into an uncertain future where politically, socially, financially we know that times will be tough and we will almost certainly feel ourselves to have lost some of the security we felt in earlier times, the message that comes through this part of Leviticus could comfort us a little – and could teach us a lot. We must – even now -continue our obligation to a just society where the gap between rich and poor must be actively narrowed (if not removed) on a regular basis. We must – even now – continue our commitment to tzedakah, to the dignity of our fellow human beings, and to our land. And if we maintain our understanding that each of us has a part to play in bettering the world, and that sometimes that process requires us to start again in a different way, then even now when following news sites may leave us feeling impotent angry and depressed, we can stop, take stock, and get on with helping to create a healthier and holier world.