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)

Shofetim : justice is human as well as divine.

There is so much in this sidra but the overwhelming impulse is to pursue justice – Tzedek. And one phrase stands out for me – “you shall come to the priests and to the Judge that shall be at that time and you shall enquire; and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgement….According to the law which they will teach you, and according to the judgement which they will tell you, you shall do and you shall not turn aside from the sentence which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:9-11)

This verse becomes the mandate for Rabbinic Judaism – and one might even say for the evolving and progressing Judaism of which our synagogue is a part. The law is decided not for all time, but by the judge who lives at that time; Torah it is not to be fossilised or protected from modernity or the zeitgeist – it is part of the same process that people are, learning as we add to knowledge, changing as we find new ways to express ourselves. Indeed, so powerful is this text that Rashi (11th Century) builds on the phrase about not deviating from the decision making of the contemporaneous judge either to the right or the left, to bolster the power of the rabbis by saying “even if they declare the left is right and right is left, you follow their judgment”, basing himself on a much earlier midrash [Sifre (2nd Century)].

The requirement to pursue Justice – “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” – and the importance of Torah being mediated through modern understandings of the world, is an extraordinarily powerful combination. Our understanding of what Justice means has grown and changed as we see how the world is connected and as we appreciate the shared humanity of all peoples and realise that our responsibilities continue outside our own immediate circle and networks, to all human beings.  We have both the principles of k’vod haBrit – Respect for different Jewish points of views and for different levels of Jewish knowledge and activity, and k’vod haBriyot – Respect for all that is created. Both in the Particular world of Jews and in the Universal world of creation, the idea of honouring God through the action of Tzedek – right behaviour – is part of Jewish teaching.

How do we honour both brit and briyot? Both the Jewish world and the larger world in which we live? We do so with the pursuit of justice, and we understand that justice must be brought about and administered in both the worlds in which we live. We can no longer view the world through the eyes of cloistered community; we have a modern understanding and appreciation of how completely we are part of the wider community. How we behave as Jews, be it individually, as a community, or indeed as Israel, must be shaped and filtered through both the imperative to justice and the understanding of modernity. We must read our texts mediated not only through the commentators of old, but also with the eyes of our own contemporaries.

The Midrash Tanhuma proclaims that “every judge who adjudicates according to the quintessential truth is regarded by Scripture as though they were a partner with God in creation.”  So searching out and supporting Justice brings us as close to the divine as we can get.

 The famous phrase ‘Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” “Justice Justice you shall pursue” continues “so that you will live, and inherit the land which the Eternal your God is giving to you (Deut. 16:20) and this is telling. Justice is the thing that brings us as close to God as we can be, the Land of Israel is seen in tradition as being a land which has the eye of God upon it. If Justice is not done in Israel, we will not deserve to live within it – indeed Jacob ben Asher [writing in the halachic code the Tur (c 13th century)], comments on the Talmudic statement that “The only reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because the sages based their decisions on the strict requirements of the law, without going beyond it” (Baba Metzia 30b) by extending it and saying “The only reason that Jerusalem was destroyed and Israel was exiled was because they abolished justice”.

 To simply apply law mechanically and strictly, without thought of context or complexity, is, in the eyes of the Tur, to abolish Justice.

 As we look around in our worlds, shaken by uprisings and riots, by demands and terror, let us take a deep breath and remember that mechanistic responses – even if written in our holy texts – may not be the answer, and we have also to apply the human responses of our own time.