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.

 

After the Days of Awe, the echoes of teshuvah continue to be heard

We have spent the last month in a frenzy of Jewish Festivals, from Rosh HaShanah on through the Ten Days of Teshuvah through to Yom Kippur, the full week of Sukkot and finally ended with the revelry of relief that is Simchat Torah.

In a sense we barely draw breath as we navigate our way through what one colleague terms “the autumn manoeuvres”, and while we reel from one festival to the next the tropes of repentance and return, the familiar tunes in minor keys, the moments of introspection, the food and the fasting, the sensation overload that is Sukkot, and finally the celebratory extravaganza as we complete the cycle of Torah readings and begin again.

So here we are at the new beginning, the post yamim noraim moments when we face living in the new year and the challenge of putting our resolutions into practise. And suddenly there is no obvious structure leading us through the process of Teshuvah – we are on our own, left to find a way to live our lives aspiring to be better people, hoping to become the best people we can

The first time a driving instructor suggested I signal, look in my mirror, remove the handbrake and move into the flow of traffic, I remember the surge of adrenalin fuelled panic as I realised I was in charge of more than a ton of moving metal. There seemed to be a huge stretch between learning about it in theory and actually driving a real car among real people. I am sure that each of us can remember a moment of realisation that life was expecting something from us, and there could be no going back. Be it the first moment in a new job when someone mistook us for a seasoned professional, or the first time we understood that a new baby was totally reliant on us, or even the first time we read Torah or agreed to sit on a synagogue committee – suddenly the world is different, and we rise to the expectation rather than admit that we don’t really know.

Well Teshuvah is rather like that – God expects something from us, we expect something from ourselves, we have thought and reflected and vowed to change our behaviour in the quiet of a synagogue service or in a moment of honest self awareness and now we have to step up and live our lives according to that aspiration.

The period of festivals just past take the title of Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe; and Awe is an emotion we tend not to be so comfortable with these days. A mixture of reverence and fear, of overwhelming amazement and intense connection, the whole idea of awe is one we tend to edge away from. Yet according to the neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall, Awe should be recognised as the eleventh emotion, added to the list of ten that researchers already use to describe states of being.

In his book “Awe” he describes the emotion as “The valuable, irresistible fascination, the highest elation and sometimes most profound sadness that leaves us in a state of puzzled apprehension, perplexing dread, yet appreciative wonder and hope regarding the vast mysteries of life”.   Later on he talks about Awe being the emotion that “causes us to feel more completely alive than we ever thought possible”.

This is the feeling we need to take with us into the new year ahead. Not as intensely as maybe we experienced it throughout the Days of Awe, but as an awareness, the resonance of an echo, as we continue in our lives. When God speaks to Job after the thunder and whirlwind, what he hears is “a voice of slender silence” (often translated poetically but less truly as “a still, small voice”. When the voice of God comes to prophets and even to some rabbis in the Talmud they hear a “bat kol” – the daughter of a voice, again a poetic reference to the echo of a sound when it has already passed. This is the closest we can get to God in our ordinary and everyday worlds, the closest we can experience beyond our own world, and as the prophets and others found, it was enough to enable them to keep going.

So as we leave the intense, profound, formal and ceremonial Days of Awe, let’s try to hold on to the echo of the awe, the appreciative wonder, the mystery, the understanding that there is more in the world than we will ever comprehend, and that this does not need to make us feel fear or that we are hostages to some random universe. The lessons of the past month tell us that while we may reel from one event to another, journey in an instant from profound sadness to great joy (and back), sometimes feel out of control or else out of energy, we move onwards in our live, we have opportunities to change in so many ways, possibilities to grow and learn, and this is good.

Shanah Tovah – may your year be new and filled with possibilities

Sukkot – fulfilling our basic needs and reminding us to look further

The two mitzvot associated with the festival of Sukkot can be found in the book of Leviticus, chapter 23. In verse 40 we are told “On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook…..”. These are the four species that we today know as the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow. The rabbis taught that we hold the four species together and wave them in all of the directions of the compass, as well as upwards and downwards. In this way, we mobilize the winds that blow from all directions to bring rain for the new season of sowing and harvest.

Then in Leviticus 23: 42-43 we read, “You shall live in booths [Sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…..”.

So what is Sukkot about? Is it a harvest festival of thanks towards the end of the agricultural year, or is it a theological festival of reminder of our history and unrootedness? Is it a about richness and plenty in the land in which we live, or about fragility and vulnerability and a sense of mobility? How do we allow it to be about both – plenty and fragility, rootedness and journeying?

To begin to understand it, we can look to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who contrasts Sukkot with Pesach. He points out, “Pesach celebrates a single, intense moment of freedom in the life of the Jewish people. At the exodus from Egypt, the divine erupted into human experience. Pesach is therefore a season of miracles. At the exodus the people were required only to take the first step, and God did the rest.

Sukkot, on the other hand, does not celebrate a moment of miracle, a moment when ordinary time ceased. On the contrary, Sukkot calls to mind a protracted period of wandering, of marking time. At Sukkot God is, as it were, hidden in the everyday. Sukkot reminds us of 40 years during which the people Israel had to deal with the basic requirements of everyday existence: water, food, the clothes on their backs, the roof over their heads. “ (The Jewish Way)

Greenberg’s insight is that these two festivals, Pesach and Sukkot, are two sides of the same coin. As human beings, we seek moments of “divine rapture”, moments that take us out of time, beyond the everyday. Such moments deepen our spiritual appreciation of life; they give us a sense of God’s grandeur. But our reality is that we spend most of our lives journeying through uncharted territory, facing the everyday demands that life places upon us, and a long distance from any moments of certain and wonderful encounter with God. Our daily life is routine, it is a constant struggle to keep up with what needs to be done, and our prayers are also to some extent routine and regular rather than heightened by awareness of God.

Just as Pesach and Sukkot represent two sides of the same coin of connection with God, so they fall at opposite ends of the Jewish year: Pesach on the 15th day of the first Hebrew month (Nisan), and Sukkot on the 15th day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Our lives revolve around these two poles of the Jewish year, which represent our longing for the miraculous, on the one hand, and our everyday experience of reality, on the other.

The two mitzvot of Sukkot focus on the basic needs of everyday life: water (represented by the waving of the four species) and shelter (represented by the sukkah). At Pesach, when we recall how the natural world was overturned and slaves became free, it is easy to acknowledge the impact of the divine on the life of our people but Sukkot reminds us that even in the absence of such dramatic moments of miracle, God is still at work in our lives and can be encountered in the everyday, the natural world, the regularity of fulfilling basic needs and living each day successfully.

Pesach and Sukkot remind us of the presence of God in our lives in very different ways. In the dramatic and in the ordinary – we can find God both at times of crisis and in the mundane routine of our lives, should we choose to really look.

A connection with the Divine Being is both nourishing of, and challenging to, our spiritual lives. Each festival has its way of directing our attention to that connection, and to the way the trajectories of our lives are developed. But there is another way to look at the symbols of Sukkot – specifically at the four species.

In the Midrash we find that R. Moni taught about the lulav and etrog using the verse from Psalms “all my limbs shall say, ‘God, who is like You?’ (Ps 35:10).

He said “This verse was only said in reference to the lulav. The spine of the lulav resembles the spine of a person; the hadas (myrtle) resembles the eye; the aravah (willow) resembles the mouth; the etrog resembles the heart. [King] David said: these are the most significant organs of the body, for they encapsulate the entire person. (VaYikra Rabbah 30:14)

It is a Midrash we know well, that in using the bundle of lulav and etrog together in worshiping God and in calling for the rains, we are taking our whole selves into the activity. But extend this idea a little further and you see that when we take hold of the lulav and etrog, we are in effect holding ourselves in our own hands, enjoying a rare chance to look at ourself from the outside. Just five days after Yom Kippur, when we have spent over a month in introspection and thought about ourselves and our lives, we are privileged to take one last external and objective look at ourselves. But more than that, we can see ourselves clearly but we also have ourselves literally in our own hands. We can decide in which direction to point ourselves in the year ahead and actually ‘take our own life in our own hands’ and start the process with a clarity of our own making, with our own decision making and with ownership of our own choices.

Sukkot, that most universal of festivals, rich with symbolism of our own vulnerability and dependence on God – yet at the same time with the powerful symbolism of our trust in our continued existence, is a time when we begin our journey anew, when we take ourselves in hand and make something of the year to come. Trust in God is all very well, the symbolism reminds us, but we have to rely also on our selves and not wait for some divine intervention to bring about the purpose of our lives, or to save us.