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)

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.

 

Chol HaMoed Succot leading into Simchat Torah

Chol HaMoed is literally the “mundane of the festival” – the intermediate days of the festivals which are bookended by more ritually observant days, and we see this twice a year with the festivals of Pesach and of Sukkot in the spring and the autumn.

It is a strange phrase, and halachically it is an odd time – some work is restricted but not all. The boundaries are blurred between special festival time and ordinary working day. Does one do a particular ritual or not? If so, does one say the blessing or not? Needless to say, hours of rabbinic time have been spent over the generations in deciding just how much of the time is Chol – ordinary, and how much of it is Moed – festive.

And Succot has an extra dimension. Biblically there are seven days of Succot ending with Hoshanah Rabbah, when there are 7 hakkafot (circuits of the synagogue) with the lulav and etrog, and when the final judgment written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is delivered – yet we have an eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, literally the” eighth of ending” which in the diaspora has also claimed a second day.  No one quite knows what Shemini Atzeret is for – though it may have been the day of cleaning the Temple, which, given the tradition that seventy bulls were sacrificed on Succot to atone for the seventy nations of the world, might certainly need some cleaning.

The Rabbis of the Talmud are themselves somewhat puzzled about what Shemini Atzeret is, and declare Shemini Atzeret to be a holiday in its own right, not just the final day of Succot.  Reform Judaism has added Simchat Torah, an entirely different festival following a different cycle, to the date. Orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. This concatenation of different celebrations does mean one thing though – while the intermediate days of Succot may be an unclear time of both secular and holy mixed together, the final days are a blur of festivity and enjoyment. Not for nothing is this festival period called “zeman simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing. For a week there is the pleasure of sitting in one’s Succah, not obligated to work at the daily grind, and entertaining guests – ushpizin. And then follows the exuberance of Simchat Torah, the achievement of having read the whole scroll and the anticipation of starting again kicks in, and we dance and sing and drink and eat sweet things and let go of all the sombre introspective tropes that have been shadowing us since the beginning of Elul, or some would say since Tisha b’Av.

Simchat Torah is a time for partying. We have been so solemn, so thoughtful, so penitent. Now we turn back into Life – and we dance, sing, laugh, run, bound back into life, with all inhibitions left behind.

Famously Samuel Pepys witnessed Simchat Torah in Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1663 and this is what he wrote in his diary:

“Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.

And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.  But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall…”

Pepys was horrified at what he saw, and had no understanding of it. He had no context in which to view it and a certain set of beliefs about what constituted worship. I would love for every synagogue to have a Simchat Torah like the one he saw – the joy, the comfort with the sifrei Torah, the comfort in offering worship through the body as well as the mind, the pleasure in knowing that a new year is started, and one that offers us all the opportunities we might need once more.

Judaism is unusual in that we move on from our Atonement once we have come together as a community and taken seriously the command to return to God and let go of our habits and inclinations that stop us living the lives we should. We move on always into Life. And if we need more Atonement – well, we can always return to God, do Teshuvah at any time, but at a fixed point in our yearly cycle we make sure we do it. I think that is the beauty of this strange concept of Chol HaMoed – there is always time for the world in our festivals, and there is always time for our religious commitments in our daily lives. While much of Judaism is about keeping boundaries, we also allow the crossover places, the liminal space which allows us always to return, always to make holy that which is ordinary, and keep holiness as an ordinary imperative in our lives.