Sukkot: Our plans make God laugh but we hope and trust anyway – what else can we do but rejoice in the life we have?

Putting up the succah in our autumnal garden some of last year’s birch leaves fall out of the folds of the s’chach and I am transported back to memories of the year gone by, aware suddenly of the passing of time, of what has changed and what is changing.

Autumn brings a special kind of melancholy. Some flowers and fruits are at their peak, the pears plumply falling on the lawn; the apples – those that have not been enjoyed by the birds – full and round. Many plants are still flowering profusely and as I look at them I know with sadness that soon  I will have to disrupt this joyful performance in order to dig them up and save them for next year, or cut them back to prevent the frost damaging their tender stems.

In the garden it feels a bit like a last hurrah. The squirrels are busily collecting acorns and conkers to bury against a hard winter; the birds are gorging on berries, the bees checking each bloom for the last sweet drops they may give up. The air has a chill, leaves are already creating an unwanted blanket over the flower beds, my gardener’s instincts are warning me not to leave the tidying up – what my mother calls ‘putting the garden to bed’ –  too  late. If I do, the price will be the slimy stems of frost damaged annuals, happy slugs and other pests doing their damage in comfort, and the bone chilling experience of wrestling with dead or dying vegetation fixed into the unyielding soil.

Autumn brings with it a sense of dying even while life is climaxing.  We have more than a shiver of recognition of our own mortality. And the Jewish festivals have been resonating with the season – We begin a new year with reflection and awe as we undergo Judgment Day – Yom HaDin; we follow through the Ten Days of Repentance (the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) as we acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes, until Yom Kippur enables us to, so to speak, slough off the burden of guilt that has been weighing on us, having done all we can to remedy what we have done.  We tidy up the garden even as we are enjoying its beauty; we cover over and put to bed the nagging thoughts about things we can no longer do anything about. We prepare for the future by cleansing the landscape of our lives.

And because all work like this takes longer than the original plan, and indeed is an ongoing act throughout the year, Jewish tradition reminds us that the Gates of Repentance stay open until the end of the Succot festival.

With all the intimations of death within life, with all the resonance of mortality and melancholy the season brings, we are commanded in bible to treat the festival of Succot with joyfulness. It is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We must rejoice before God with the products of the land, the pri etz hadar (fruit of the beautiful tree), the palm, the myrtle, the willow of the brook.

As a gardener I notice that these plants all grow in Israel in different parts of the country – for such a tiny piece of land the different micro-climates are extraordinary.  The lulav, coming from the palm tree, fruits most happily where it is hot and dry – while it grows in the coastal areas, in truth it is a tree that disdains humidity and far prefers the semi –desert conditions. The myrtle (hadas) prefers the cooler mountainous areas. The aravah (willow) needs to be close to a consistent water supply (hence “willows of the brook”) and the etrog grows best in the lower coastal areas and the valleys.  These four symbols of Succot encompass all the growing conditions a gardener could work in, and it is a rarely lucky horticulturist who finds themselves able to work them all in one garden.  I would love more acid soils and less shade in my garden, but such is life, one works with what one has.

We bring together vegetation from all areas of Israel, symbolising not only geographical or horticultural diversity but also different times in our lives- the hot semi desert when growth and change seem impossible, the cool perspective when we can see, if not always reach, our next stage, the times when life flows fast around us and the times when the horizon is very distant and unimaginable.

On Succot we telescope the year with its possibilities into this composite symbol; indeed we telescope our lives with its many experiences both good and bad into the celebration of the festival, and we rejoice before God for our very selves. We know that no life is untouched by sorrow, that no-one escapes from living without experiencing problems and pain, but we know too that our lives are something to be thankful for, to celebrate and enjoy.  The autumnal adumbral presentiments of change – of life and death and rebirth – make us pause for a moment to notice the change, the growing and the dying back, the fruiting and the flowering.

Why are we commanded to rejoice at the very time we are facing the bleakness of the  winter? I think it is an assertion of hope, of trust that the world will once again flourish and flower, that life, even as it is in the process of completing one cycle, is readying and preparing the next. We are facing a dormancy but not an ending. We rejoice because we have confidence that we are not alone, that our lives are not isolated, but that a thread of something beyond us will connect us in time and space. The very succot we build and live in, fragile and uncomfortable and with little protection from the elements, remind us that when all the physical defences and supports we take for granted are gone, we are still together, still in community, still under the protection of God.  When we tie together the arba’a minim, we not only become aware of the larger world, shaking it East, South, West, North, Upwards and Downwards in petition for the water our land needs at this time, we also become aware of the composite peoplehood we are a part of. The midrashim that link the parts to the parts of the body, the “types “ that make up community, the geography of the Land of Israel – all of them have one thing in common. If we care for each other and live in community, sharing what we have, comforting those in pain or distress, recognising the humanity of the other, then we are stronger, we can face the Autumn and the Winter, we can depend on the thread of life that may seem impossible to see, that may lie dormant under unpromising conditions.

We rejoice on Succot because with all of the fears, all of the uncertainty, all of the sudden awareness of the transience of our materiality, we remember that we are part of a greater whole, and God, even if not obvious to us, underpins us and supports us and keeps us alive to say the she’he’cheyanu prayer at this season. We none of us know what our future holds for us and while we might make plans for it these are at the most provisional. As the Yiddish saying goes: Der mentsh tracht und Gott lacht – Human Beings make plans and (this is why) God laughs

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט

All we can do is live in the moment, aware of the fragilities of life and aware too that life goes on – and hope that we will see the next season and the next.

 

Ki Tavo: Moses’ words echo today – what of us will echo in the future?

Ki Tavo includes the famously difficult passage known as the tochecha, the red lines of society’s expectations laid down mainly in the form of the cursing of the one who disobeys, but there is a great deal more in this speech which is part of the series given by an increasingly anxious Moses as he approaches his death. The whole thrust of the book of Deuteronomy is given life by Moses’ desperate wish to help the Israelite people continue on their journey with God after he is no longer around to help them. So here we have the ritual of sacrificing the first harvested fruits of the land to God carefully spelled out – the fruits should be put in a basket, taken to a specific place of worship, given to the priest of the time – and one of the earliest bits of liturgical speech is also given here – the people must say to the priest “I profess this day to the Eternal­­­­­­­­­ your God that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us”. The priest will take the basket and place it at the altar, and then the speech is to continue: “A wondering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great mighty and populous. And the Egyptians dealt badly with us and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondages. And we cried to the Eternal the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. And the Eternal God brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness and with signs and with wonders, and God brought us into this place and has given us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I have brought the first of the fruit of the land which you O God have given me”.

The whole script is prescribed – and after it what shall happen – you will then worship God, you will rejoice in all the good that God has given to you, and so on.

The text is familiar to even the most distanced of Jews – it is the basis for the text of the Haggadah that we read at Pesach. Word for word Moses’ script is recited when we remember the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder each year. The actual figure of Moses may never have been allowed into the Haggadah in case people should begin to believe that it was his leadership rather than God’s that took us on our journey into peoplehood and covenant, but that becomes irrelevant when we realise that something far more important has been imported untouched by the editorial process of the book – the direct prayer of Moses is embedded in the text as if in amber. The rabbinic statement that a scholar does not ever die fully if his teachings are remembered – phrased evocatively as “his lips move in the grave when his words are recounted” – means that Moses’ teaching really has been passed down the generations and his humanity and presence really do remain among us.

As we move towards the Yamim Noraim we are prompted to remember those who taught us our religious and ethical values, and it is a custom in this period to visit the graves of those family members and teachers who have died. We are going to be facing our own ‘day of judgement’ to spend at least one day looking at our lives from the perspective of our own death as we abstain from food and drink and the normal everyday activities we do every other day of the year. We weigh up our actions in the past year and maybe further; consider who we have been, what lessons can be inferred from how we have lived our lives. So the question we have to ask of ourselves now is – how have we done? How are our actions an expression of our values? Will we have been a strong link in a chain or an irrelevant and vestigial structure appended to the community without much adding to it?

Every year our liturgical calendar gives us time to consider whether our lives are going in a direction we can be proud of, whether our lived lives are an valuable addition to the world we care about or not. So will the text of our lives be read in the generations to come or as we pass into eternity will we also be forgotten, no stories remembered with warmth and love, no wisdom or behaviour of ours held close to those still in the world? Our legacy does not have to be high profile or high achieving. But how we lived our lives should matter.

vati grave

illustration is the grave of Walter Rothschild in Jewish Cemetery Lausanne