Succot and Joy in the time of Covid

Succot 2020

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The moment that  Yom Kippur services finish, (well maybe the moment after we have eaten and drunk to break our fast), the traditional Jew makes the first symbolic move to build their succah.  Five days after the solemnity and awe of Kippur, we are commanded to rejoice – Succot is Zman Simchateinu – the season of our rejoicing.

The Gemara (Pesachim 109a) asks how the mitzvah of “vesamachta bechagecha” (rejoice on your holidays) can be fulfilled once the Temple is destroyed. It answers, “ein simcha ela b’yayin,” there can be no joy without wine, citing Psalm 104:15 which states, “yayin yisamach levav enosh,” wine brings joy to the people’s hearts. This is not a recipe for drunkenness though; it is a reminder that sometimes drinking wine can help us escape the horrors of the current world. If the shopping habits of many since Covid struck, it seems many have the same idea. Alcohol sales in the UK have risen by a third since Covid.

But unlike Pesach or Purim, there is no mitzvah to drink on Succot. We must get our joy elsewhere.

The root of the word s’m’ch (joy) appears only once in each of the first four books of the bible, but explodes (relatively) in Deuteronomy – where it is clearly part of the future activity in the Land. And generally the joy is to be experienced in the Tempe worship. In chapter 12 of Deuteronomy we have three examples: – “[In the place that God will choose] you and your families shall eat and rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Eternal your God has blessed you” (Deut. 12:7). : “And there you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns” (Deut. 12:12).   “Eat them in the presence of the Eternal your God at the place the Eternal your God will choose – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns – and you are to rejoice before the Eternal your God in everything you put your hand to”

A few chapters later, when tithing the produce, we are told “And you shall use the money (from the produce) for whatsoever your soul desires, for oxen or sheep, for wine, or strong drink …and  eat there before the Eternal your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. And the Levite that is within your gates, you shall not forsake him; for he has no portion or inheritance with you”

– Shavuot is to be celebrated joyfully in the Temple: And rejoice before the Eternal your God at the place God will choose as a dwelling for The Name – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, the Levites in your towns, and the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows living among you” Deut 16:11

And three times we are told about Succot – once in Leviticus we read the instruction to “take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days.”(23:40) and twice in Deuteronomy ““Be joyful at your feast – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows who live in your towns .For seven days, celebrate the feast to the Eternal your God at the place the Eternal your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete ” (Deut. 16:14,15).

When you put these verses together what jumps out – besides the idea that simcha/joy is essentially a phenomenon emerging from the worship experience, is that it is a shared and communal experience. Simcha/joy is not an individual emotion, but the effect of coming together as a group in order to affirm our contract with God. It is not surprising that the word for a celebration is “simcha” – one cannot have a party or celebrate alone, simcha needs the presence of others.

While not the only joyous festival in our calendar, three times the word s’m’ch appears in conjunction with Succot. And yet at the same time Succot is a festival whose main symbols represent the fragility of life. The succah itself, reminding us of the flimsy tents we lived in while traveling in the desert on our way to the Promised Land. Vulnerable structures, unable to fully protect us from the elements, providing “just enough” shelter. They are not well constructed; need to have only 2 and half walls (though at least 3 is preferable) and be open enough to the sky that while there is more shade than sun, there must be sufficient gaps in the s’chach (covering) to be able to see the sun or stars.

While the succah most likely descends from the temporary dwellings where the farmers or shepherds lived in order to protect the crops or flocks, it has become a metaphor for our dependence on God, a reminder that our faith in the security of bricks and mortar is misplaced.

The lulav and etrog symbolise our dependence on the land – and on the rains coming at the right time- for our food. Midrash glosses them in a myriad of ways – they represent the full Jewish community, the body of each of us, the way we experience the world. They represent our history from Egypt to settlement, a celebration of the water cycle, a representation of the different micro climates in the Land of Israel….But however they are glossed, the arba’a minim are a physical reminder of our need for the seasonal rains if we are to eat and to survive.

The two messages – of our vulnerability in the present that we cannot “future proof” however hard we try, and of our need for others if we are to create joy, make Succot one of the most powerful festivals in our calendar. We become powerfully aware both of our individual fragility and of the way that being in community can address our fears and our weaknesses; that being together in doing God’s demands of us can keep us secure in a deep and meaningful way.

The book of Kohelet is traditionally read on Succot. It is a strange book, part of the wisdom literature tradition, full of awareness of the transitory nature of our lives. It sees reality in all its bleakness – recognises that the oft-quoted consolations don’t hold up. The good do suffer. Bad people are not brought to justice. The innocent can face tragedy.  While appearing to be deeply pessimistic and a strange choice for the festival of joy, in fact I think it is a brilliant addition. Because its unflinching facing up to reality, to the fact that our days are fleeting, that there is no recipe for success or happiness or longevity or whatever it is we want, it takes us to the heart of simcha. There is no way we can manipulate our world or our futures so we may as well focus on the present and learn to be present within it, learn to value what we currently have with who we currently have.

Joy comes when we stop looking for more, stop comparing what we think we deserve with what we actually have, stop competing and begin to understand and come to terms with the people and the times we live in. Joy comes when we accept our vulnerability and know that it can be mitigated by companionship, community and relationship with God. Joy comes when we celebrate our today rather than keep our eyes on some ideal prize in our tomorrows.

This year’s Succot is going to be harder than most – we may not be able to squash into the succah with family and friends because of the Covid distancing – but we can invite the ushpizin, the guests who represent our history and our values, to join us. We may have to temper our interactions with our communities, mitigate them through the conferencing platforms on our computers, miss out on the release of the tensions of Elul and Tishri that a simcha can bring.  We can contemplate our vulnerability this year and know just how real it is – this year the symbols of Succot may be less needed as a reminder. But we can still experience joy. We belong to our communities, we recreate them in virtual space, we know that in these pandemic times friends and family members community members we know and those we do not, neighbours and delivery drivers – they alleviate our isolation, provide human companionship and life’s necessities. So let this Succot be a time of joy, and let it remind us not only that our lives hang on a thread, but that the thread is woven into the fabric of community, we hold it securely for each other.

image of ushpizin from chochmat nashim

USHPIZIN תשפ”א

When we heard that the names of the heroes and heroines of Israel were being erased on the streets of Bet Shemesh, we decided to give them a place of honor in our Sukkah. Please join us in honoring them in yours.

כשנודע לנו שעיריית בית שמש החליטה למחוק את שמות גיבורי וגיבורות ישראל משלטי רחוב- החלטנו לתת להם מקום של כבוד בסוכה שלנו. הצטרפו אלינו בבקשה והכניסו אותם גם לסוכה שלכם.

Succot e gioia in tempo di Covid

Pubblicato il 2 ottobre 2020

Da rav Sylvia Rothschild

Succot 2020

Nel momento in cui finiscono i servizi dello Yom Kippur (beh, forse dal momento dopo che abbiamo mangiato e bevuto per rompere il nostro digiuno), l’ebreo, tradizionalmente, fa il  primo simbolico atto di costruzione la sua succà. Cinque giorni dopo la solennità e il timore reverenziale di Kippur, ci viene ordinato di rallegrarci: Succot è Zman Simchateinu, la stagione della nostra gioia.

La Gemara (Pesachim 109a) chiede come si possa adempiere la mitzvà di “vesamachta bechagecha” (rallegrati per le tue feste) dopo che il Tempio è stato distrutto. Risponde “ein simcha ela b’yayin“, non ci può essere gioia senza vino, citando il Salmo 104: 15 che afferma, “yayin yisamach levav enosh“, il vino porta gioia ai cuori delle persone. Questa non è però una ricetta per l’ubriachezza, ci ricorda che a volte bere vino può aiutarci a sfuggire agli orrori del mondo attuale. Se le abitudini di acquisto di molti dopo che il Covid ha colpito mostrano qualcosa, sembra che in tanti abbiano la stessa idea. Le vendite di alcolici nel Regno Unito sono aumentate di un terzo da quando c’è il Covid.

Ma, a differenza di Pesach o Purim, a Succot non c’è la mitzvà di bere. Dobbiamo indirizzare la nostra gioia altrove.

La radice della parola s’m’ch (gioia) appare solo una volta in ciascuno dei primi quattro libri della Bibbia, ma esplode (relativamente) in Deuteronomio, dove è chiaramente parte dell’attività futura nella Terra. E generalmente la gioia deve essere sperimentata nel culto al Tempio. Nel capitolo 12 del Deuteronomio abbiamo tre esempi: “[Nel luogo che Dio sceglierà] voi e le vostre famiglie mangerete e gioirete di ogni vostra iniziativa per la quale l’Eterno tuo Dio vi ha benedetto” (Deut. 12:7). – “Gioirete dunque davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio, i vostri figli, le vostre figlie, i vostri schiavi e le vostre schiave, nonché il Levita che è nelle vostre città” (Deut. 12:12). “Mangiateli alla presenza dell’Eterno, vostro Dio, nel luogo che l’Eterno vostro Dio sceglierà: voi, i vostri figli e le vostre figlie, i vostri servi e le vostre schiave, e il Levita delle vostre città – e dovete rallegrarvi davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio in tutto ciò a cui mettete mano”.

Alcuni capitoli dopo, quando si paga la decima, ci viene detto: “E userete il denaro (dal prodotto) per qualunque cosa la vostra anima desideri, per i buoi o le pecore, per il vino o la bevanda forte … e mangerete lì davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio, e gioite, voi e la vostre famiglie. E il Levita che è entro le vostre porte, non lo abbandonerete; perché non ha parte o eredità con voi”.

“(A Shavuot) ti rallegrerai davanti al Signore tuo Dio, tu e tuo figlio, la tua figliola, il tuo schiavo e la tua schiava, il Levita che è nella tua città e il forestiero, l’orfano e la vedova che saranno in mezzo a te, nel luogo che sceglierà il Signore tuo Dio come residenza del suo santuario.” Deut 16:11

E tre volte ci viene detto di Succot: una volta, nel Levitico, leggiamo l’istruzione: “prendete il frutto di alberi buoni, rami di palme e rami di alberi folti e salici del ruscello, e gioirete davanti all’Eterno vostro Dio sette giorni.” (23:40) e due volte in Deuteronomio “Ti rallegrerai nella tua festa: tu e tuo figlio e le tue figlie, il tuo schiavo e la tua schiava, il Levita, il forestiero, l’orfano e la vedova che vivono nelle tue città. Per sette giorni, farai  festa in onore dell’Eterno tuo Dio nel luogo che il Signore stesso sceglierà, perché ti benedirà il Signore e nei tuoi prodotti dei campi  ed in tutte le sue azioni sarai dunque completamente lieto.” (Dt. 16 : 14,15).

Quando metti insieme questi versi, ciò che emerge, oltre all’idea che simcha/gioia è essenzialmente un fenomeno che emerge dall’esperienza del servizio religioso, è che è un’esperienza condivisa e comunitaria. Simcha/gioia non è un’emozione individuale, ma l’effetto di riunirsi in gruppo per affermare il nostro contratto con Dio. Non sorprende che la parola per una celebrazione sia “simcha“: non si può fare una festa o festeggiare da soli, simcha ha bisogno della presenza degli altri.

Sebbene non sia l’unica festa gioiosa nel nostro calendario, tre volte la parola s’m’ch appare insieme a Succot. Eppure allo stesso tempo Succot è una festa i cui simboli principali rappresentano la fragilità della vita. La succà stessa, che ci ricorda le fragili tende in cui vivevamo mentre viaggiavamo nel deserto verso la Terra Promessa. Strutture vulnerabili, incapaci di proteggerci completamente dalle intemperie, fornendo un riparo “appena sufficiente”. Non sono ben costruite; devono avere solo due muri e mezzo (anche se almeno tre è preferibile) ed essere aperte a sufficienza verso il cielo così che, anche se c’è più ombra che sole, ci debbano essere spazi sufficienti nello s’chach (copertura) per poter vedere il sole o le stelle.

Sebbene molto probabilmente la succà discenda dalle abitazioni temporanee dove vivevano i contadini o i pastori per proteggere i raccolti o le greggi, è diventata una metafora della nostra dipendenza da Dio, un promemoria che la nostra fede nella sicurezza di mattoni e malta è mal riposta.

Il lulav e l’etrog simboleggiano la nostra dipendenza dalla terra e dalle piogge, che arrivano al momento giusto, per il nostro cibo. Il Midrash li coniuga in una miriade di modi: rappresentano l’intera comunità ebraica, il corpo di ognuno di noi, il modo in cui viviamo il mondo. Rappresentano la nostra storia dall’Egitto agli insediamenti, una celebrazione del ciclo dell’acqua, una rappresentazione dei diversi microclimi nella Terra di Israele …. Ma comunque li interpretiamo, gli arba’a minim sono un promemoria fisico del nostro bisogno di piogge stagionali se vogliamo mangiare e sopravvivere.

I due messaggi, della nostra vulnerabilità nel presente che non possiamo “rendere a prova di futuro” per quanto ci sforziamo, e del nostro bisogno degli altri se vogliamo creare gioia, fanno di Succot una delle feste più potenti del nostro calendario. Diventiamo fortemente consapevoli sia della nostra fragilità individuale sia del modo in cui essere in comunità può fronteggiare le nostre paure e le nostre debolezze; che essere insieme nell’adempiere alle richieste che Dio ci fa può tenerci al sicuro in un modo profondo e significativo.

Il libro di Kohelet viene tradizionalmente letto a Succot. È un libro strano, parte della tradizione della letteratura sapienziale, pieno di consapevolezza della natura transitoria delle nostre vite. Vede la realtà in tutta la sua desolazione: riconosce che le consolazioni spesso citate non reggono. I buoni soffrono. Le persone cattive non vengono assicurate alla giustizia. L’innocente può affrontare la tragedia. Sebbene appaia profondamente pessimista e una strana scelta per la festa della gioia, in effetti penso che sia un’aggiunta geniale. Perché affrontare risolutamente la realtà, il fatto che i nostri giorni sono fugaci, che non esiste una ricetta per il successo o la felicità o la longevità o qualunque cosa desideriamo, ci porta al cuore della simchà. Non c’è modo di manipolare il nostro mondo o il nostro futuro, quindi possiamo anche concentrarci sul presente e imparare ad essere consapevoli al suo interno, imparare a valutare ciò che abbiamo attualmente, insieme a chi abbiamo attualmente.

La gioia arriva quando smettiamo di cercare oltre, smettiamo di confrontare ciò che pensiamo di meritare con ciò che abbiamo effettivamente, smettiamo di competere e iniziamo a capire e venire a patti con le persone e i tempi in cui viviamo. La gioia arriva quando accettiamo la nostra vulnerabilità e sappiamo che può essere mitigata dalla compagnia, dalla comunità e dal rapporto con Dio. La gioia arriva quando celebriamo il nostro oggi piuttosto che tenere gli occhi su un premio ideale nel nostro domani.

Il Succot di quest’anno sarà più difficile della maggior parte degli altri: potremmo non essere in grado di stringerci nella succà con la famiglia e gli amici a causa del distacco del Covid, ma possiamo invitare gli ushpizin, gli ospiti che rappresentano la nostra storia e i nostri valori, a unirsi a noi. Potremmo dover temperare le nostre interazioni con le nostre comunità, mitigarle attraverso le piattaforme di conferenza sui nostri computer, perdere l’occasione di sciogliere le tensioni di Elul e Tishri, che una simchà potrebbe portare. Possiamo contemplare la nostra vulnerabilità quest’anno e sapere quanto sia reale: quest’anno i simboli di Succot potrebbero essere meno necessari come promemoria. Ma possiamo ancora provare gioia. Apparteniamo alle nostre comunità, le ricreiamo nello spazio virtuale, sappiamo che in questi tempi di pandemia membri della comunità di amici e familiari che conosciamo e quelli che non conosciamo, i vicini e i fattorini, alleviano il nostro isolamento, forniscono compagnia umana e le necessità della vita. Quindi, possa questo Succot essere un momento di gioia, possa ricordarci non solo che le nostre vite sono appese a un filo, ma che il filo è intessuto nella trama della comunità, lo teniamo saldamente gli uni per gli altri.

immagine di ushpizin da chochmat nashim

Quando abbiamo saputo che i nomi degli eroi e delle eroine di Israele venivano cancellati per le strade di Bet Shemesh, abbiamo deciso di dare loro un posto d’onore nella nostra Sukkà. Unitevi a noi per onorarli nel vostro.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Parashat Noach: when we don’t confront catastrophe we enable it; or -we have to stop taking the world for granted if we want it to survive

The stories within parashat Noach are among the most frightening – and the most relevant – ones we could be reading right now.

While the narratives of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel are well known to us, there is another thread we tend to overlook. It is the story of how, when returned to dry land, Noah built a vineyard, made wine and stupefied himself with it so that he exposed himself in his tent, causing one son to see and tell, the other two to carefully cover him without themselves looking at their father in such a humiliating and vulnerable state.

There is a Midrash that is telling about this post diluvian Noah.

“When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? … God replied, Oh Noah, how different you are from the way Abraham … will be. He will argue with me on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah when I tell him that I plan their destruction… But you, Noah, when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on behalf of the world. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch you. You thought of no one but your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach).

Noah is introduced to us right at the beginning of the story as “a righteous man in his generation”, and quite rightly the rabbis do not see this as a great compliment. The qualifying phrase “in his generation” makes it clear that his righteousness is relative rather than absolute. So this just about good-enough man is enabled to survive in order to begin the world afresh. But as starts to face the future, he realises all that he had not done, that his selfishness and narrow vision had allowed the great destruction to happen, that it didn’t have to be like this.

Noah, facing the new world, cannot actually face the past and his part in it, nor really can he move on into the future. He just gets stupefyingly, paralytically drunk, and his sons are forced to deal with the consequences. The younger one does not know what to do – Midrash suggests that he actually assaults his naked father as he lies dead to the world – but at the very least he does nothing;  the older ones treat him with more respect, but reading the text one has the feeling that they simply cannot bear to see their father lying there, seeing what he has become. By covering him they are also trying to cover up everything that Noah has symbolises – his passivity, his refusal to engage with the situation God tells him of, his lack of compassion for other living beings, his lack of any timely compassion at all and his inability to deal with the consequences of his own inaction.

Upon waking, Noah curses Canaan, the child of his younger son, and blesses God on behalf of the other two, giving them an approximation of a blessing.

Why? Why curse Canaan, the child of Ham who saw him naked? Why not Ham himself? Noah is passing the pain down the generations, to those who are neither present nor responsible for the destruction. His own drunken misery becomes a curse for some of his descendants.

The truth that Noah doesn’t want to face is that he is in a new world now. A world washed clean of the violence and horror of the past, but also washed away – its resources, its people, and its structures all gone. This is no longer the world of miraculous creation, when God walked among the people in the Garden, and oversaw the perfection of the world. We are now in a world that Nechama Leibowitz described as ‘post miraculous’ a world where suddenly there are obligations – the seven mitzvot of the b’nei Noah are given here, … “It was in this renewed world — the world destined to be our world and not in the earlier, miraculous world — that saw the opening of the gate to the conflict between the values of  tikkun olam (perfection of the world) and Humanity .Avraham, who appears at the end of Parashat Noach is the person who takes upon himself the mission of perfecting the world as Kingdom of God, rather than taking the world for granted as Noach had done”

Noach took the world for granted. When warned by God of what was to happen, he took that for granted too. And when the worst had happened and the world was washed away leaving Noah and his family to begin it once again, he failed to do what was necessary, and it took another ten generations – till that of Abraham, for the relationship between God and human beings to flower once more.

It is interesting to me that this parashah began with the phrase, “These are the descendants of Noah,” yet does not go on to list any people, but rather begins a discussion of Noah’s attributes. One commentator suggests that this teaches us that what a person “leaves behind” in the world is not only children, but also the effects of their deeds.

Noah left behind both of course – everyone in the world is a descendant of this man if the flood story is to be believed, and so everyone is obligated to the mitzvot of b’nei Noach. But he also left behind the effect of his behaviours, deeds both committed and omitted.

Noah did not help to perfect the world. He allowed it to be washed away.  He didn’t appreciate the value of the world at all, focussing only on his own family and his own needs. Only after it was gone was he able to understand what was lost, and even then he was not able to deal with this loss. He curses a part of his family into perpetuity, his descendants go on to build the Tower of Babel in order to in some way find a purpose and meaning in their continued existence, and maybe also to challenge the divine using their newly created technology. So they too are forced to confront catastrophe as they are scattered across the world and left unable to communicate with each other. It takes ten generations, with the emergence of Avraham, for the world to begin to heal itself.

Like Noah we too are facing a time when the world seems to be set on a pathway to destruction: climate change, global heating, over fishing, the rainforest which once covered 14% of the earth’s surface now covers less than 8%, with all the consequences of loss of species that involves, years long droughts and famines.  We can see the warnings of destruction, we know the consequences of what is happening now, yet somehow we walk about in a dream, neither warning each other nor challenging what is happening. We spend our time trying to ensure only that we and our families can be safe, that our houses are weatherproofed, that our pantries are stocked. We are behaving no differently than Noah. And if we give it some thought and project our ideas into the near future, we can see than those who survive this environmental tumult will not have the resources to cope.

It is our job to take the story of Noah seriously – not as a good enough man who was saved from cataclysm because he did what God said without question, but as a man who was at least righteous in his generation, someone who hadn’t completely surrendered to the corruption and destructive activities around him. And we should see the consequences of his inactions too – that the world he allowed his children to inherit was damaged and fragile and took generations to heal.

Pirkei Avot reminds us that Rabbi Tarphon said “We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it” (2:21). So how do we begin to address the problem? The answer comes from a number of sources – the most clear being that every small step matters. As Maimonides wrote about Teshuvah, “one should consider the entire world as if it were exactly balanced between acts of righteousness and evil. The very next action you take, therefore, can save or condemn the world

Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018