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)

Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.

Kedoshim: increasing kiddush hashem and diminishing hillul hashem.

It has long been the habit to refer to all the Jews who historically were killed for adhering to their faith in times of persecution as having died “al Kiddush Hashem” and this idea has also become attached to the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah – they have become kedoshim through their deaths and are  elevated to the status of martyrdom.  I understand the comfort that may be derived by those who mourn their murdered family and friends to see their status as that of kedoshim, but I have always found this slide of the terminology to be problematic. To me martyrdom should be a conscious choice. To me their murder is a Hillul Hashem, and no holiness can be found within it, only in the responses both at the time and afterwards to protest, to remember, to mourn, to live on.

I am uncomfortable also in the loss of the full name of Yom haShoah, which is actually “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah”— literally the “Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism.” All choice has been removed from our remembering – both the lack of choice of those who were rounded up and unable to protest, and the powerful choices made by those who did protest, or who were partisans or who hid themselves or others from the evil around them.  By diminishing the heroism, by diminishing the choices people made from their own humanity and their ethical imperatives, it seems to be we lose out on Kiddush Hashem as people are able to bring it about. Instead we focus on the Hillul Hashem of those who mindlessly or not destroyed the hopes and lives of so many and we coat the victims in martyrdom as if to bring honour to their destinies.

Yom HaShoah was created to remember those we have defined as kedoshim either through martyrdom or through protecting God’s creation when others were trying to destroy it, and the date was chosen by the Government of Israel to remember them. It is no coincidence that the date chosen by the politicians was out of sync from the date that would have been chosen by rabbinic tradition, and instead of being placed on a traditional day of mourning such as tenth Tevet or Tisha b’Av it was placed a week before the celebration of the Israel Independence Day – Yom ha’Atzma’ut. This placing has led to a connection in the minds of many, that the outcome of the murder of the 6 million is the creation of the modern State of Israel.

For me this is deeply problematic. Not only does it submerge the many prior years of political Zionism that worked to create a Jewish state, but it builds the state on the martyrdom of the ‘kedoshim’, many of whom were not natural Zionists in life.  In so doing, it changes the nature of the contract with the land we have had since this Torah text was given – that we have the land of Israel because God has given it to us, and we have a responsibility to live on it in a way that promotes Kiddush Hashem. Sidra Kedoshim makes clear that our continued living on the land of Israel depends on our living lives of kedoshim, ethical lives where the vulnerable are protected, the land is cared for, and where a lived awareness of the focussed attention of God and the desire to behave as God would wish us to do should always be part of our daily routines. By making the idea of ‘kedoshim’ the historical foundation of the State rather than the aspiration of the contemporary society we reduce the imperative to behave in holiness. And that is dangerous, for if we are not acting to promote Kiddush Hashem we run the risk of sliding into its shadow, of Hillul Hashem. If we believe we have an entitlement not given to us by Torah but by the deaths of innocents then we can easily act from that sense of entitlement, and we forget the conditions given here in Leviticus that the land will not tolerate our bad behaviour.

The rabbis of the Talmud spoke of being kedoshim as living in such a way as to imitate the divine qualities of mercy and kindness.  They specifically ruled out imitating the parallel divine attribute of strict justice often seen as working in balance with divine mercy and which may impose conditions for the way the mercy might be applied. They are advocating undiscriminating kindness to others in order both to achieve kedoshim and to increase the presence of God in the world. I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote “when I was young I used to admire clever people, now I am older I admire kind people” and I hope that beyond admiration, we remember the vulnerable and the powerless and those who sought to help and protect them, and in remembering our own experience of helplessness and oppression we too strive to increase kindness in our world.

 

Parashat Behar Behukotai “And I remember the Land”

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The Hebrew bible is essentially the story of how a group of diverse individuals came to be formed as a People through a covenant relationship with God, the Creator of all things, and how that relationship was supposed to help them to be a righteous People who lived out their ethics on a small land to which they gave their name – Israel.

We are used to reading the texts and narratives, deriving from them a system of laws and of ways to behave in order to create our society and ourselves. We are used to the stories that form a narrative history, albeit one that is often read more as metaphor or myth than as literal record of events.  We are comforted by the story of the relationship with God that, even though interspersed with episodes of extraordinary pain and even a feeling of temporary estrangement, is shown to be constant and caring and ever present.  

The people Israel really came to existence at Sinai, when they agreed to the covenant relationship with God, with all of its rules and obligations. As God said when they were encamped at Sinai before the formal giving of Torah  “ Now, if you will really listen to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5). Though of course much earlier when speaking to Moses in Egypt, God reminds him of the earlier promise of Covenant relationship and Land given to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob,  that “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I did not make Myself known to them.  And I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan, the Land of their sojourning, where they lived…..So say to the children of Israel: I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage;…  and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, …  And I will bring you in to the Land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Eternal” (Exodus 6:3-8)

What becomes clear as we read these texts of the formation of a people was that the Land which God gives to them is a critical element of the covenant, it is a partner in the relationship, and it is not simply an object which is given as reward or gift. The Land in the biblical narrative has a personality and a power. It is not a passive backdrop to be lived upon and worked for its produce– it is an active force in the relationship, a player in the narrative and character in the events. Like the people it belongs to God. It is only ever on loan to the Jewish nation, and that loan comes with strings attached.

Here at the end of the book of Leviticus we return to the Sinaitic meeting to emphasise once again the importance of the Land in the Covenant agreement. In Sidra Behar the text presents the laws regarding the sabbatical and the jubilee years. For six years the people are to sow their fields and prune their vineyards, but in the seventh year, the Land must be allowed to lay fallow. In other words, it must be given a rest – a Sabbath for the Land.
Every fiftieth year is a jubilee year which will not only to have all the rules of a sabbatical year but also is the time that all the Israelites who had sold themselves into servitude during the previous forty-nine years would be freed. Property (especially land) is also to be returned to the original owner-families. Thus the clock is reset and the original distribution of land among the tribes of Israel is to be preserved forever.

Then Parashat Bechukotai reminds us that if the people follow God’s laws then they will be protected, but if not then God will punish them – specifically the Land will not produce, the people will live in fear of their enemies who will remove them from the Land, and they will not return to it until they had atoned for their sins, included in which is their refusal to have let the Land have rest:  “Then shall the Land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the Land rest, and repay her sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest; even the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when you dwelt upon it. (Lev. 26:34-35)

So if the covenant is broken and the people forget their responsibilities to each other and to God, then the Land will lie desolate without its people, the people desolate in the land of their enemies, but ultimately, says God  “ I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the Land” (Lev 26.42) and God goes on to say: “I will not reject them, neither abhor them to destroy them utterly and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God, and I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations that I might be their God, I am the Eternal (Lev 26:44,45)

The Covenant is ultimately unbreakable, however strained it may become. The Land remains connected to the people and to the Covenant, but it will not be abused. It too has its own relationship with God. It too is cared for and remembered by God, and it will not allow itself to become the setting for unrighteous behaviour.  It is not a prize for its inhabitants to use as they will, rather it is the test bed for the mitzvot that form the detail of the Covenant to be carried out – the commandment of compassion for the stranger, of thoughtful use of resources, of caring for all the poor and needy who are living amongst us, of the awareness that ultimately we do not own the Land but are allowed to lease it, so we should remember and give thanks to God who is giving us the food we need.  The Land is content to be in a mutually respectful and symbiotic relationship with us, a sibling relationship with us,  but we should never take it for granted. To impose ourselves on the Land and those who live on it, to oblige them to bend to our will, to arrogantly arrogate to ourselves the power to dictate to the Land and those who live on it, be they human, animal or plant life – this the Land will not accept, we will forfeit the benefits of the covenant and we will ultimately forfeit the Land if we do not quickly return to the ways of righteous behaviour.

Again and again Torah reminds us that our behaviour has consequences, and the ultimate consequence is displacement from our Land. Again and again the prophets rail against behaviours that place us and the Land in danger. Again and again a harsh experience results, a lesson must be learned, behaviour must change.

And yet the sidra gives us a clear instruction and it gives us hope: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give you rains in their season, and the Land shall yield her produce and the trees of the field will yield their fruit. …and you shall eat your bread until you have enough and you shall dwell safely in your Land. And I will give peace in the Land, and you shall lie down and no one shall make you afraid… (Lev 26:3-6)

Peace in the Land comes at a price – the price of how we behave in the Land and to the Land. To treat her well, and to treat all those who live on her well, will bring about the “shalom ba’aretz” we all crave and which comes, ultimately, from God. Not to do so – well the warning is explicit in the sidra with the tochecha listed here. The Land will not provide any place to hide.