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

29th Elul: Leaving Elul, with joy, with forgetting, with God.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav wrote that while people generally thought that forgetfulness was a disadvantage, he felt it could be helpful, because knowing how to forget means we can loosen ourselves from the traumas and bonds of the past

נהוג לחשוב שהשכחה הינה חסרון. אני סבור שהיא יתרון. לדעת לשכוח, פירושו להשתחרר מכל תלאות העבר

During the days of Ellul we have been thinking, bringing to mind, remembering and sometimes cringing about our past behaviours, what we did, what we failed to do. We have been trying to mend our relationships, apologise where necessary, and repair where we can. Forgetting has been the last thing on our minds.

Nachman also said that

אם אתה מאמין שיכולים לקלקל, תאמין שיכולים לתקן

If you believe it is possible to break things, then you must also believe that it is possible to repair.

On the last day of Ellul, when some will feel despair, some will feel inadequacy, a few may feel proud that they have moved, others may still insist there is no work of change to be done, it is helpful to enter the world of Rabbi Nachman, whose style of relationship with God – hitbodedut  – was unstructured, meditative and  conversational prayer, and whose world view was that joy was far better than grief, despite the difficulties that life brings us.

If we tell ourselves that we have enabled brokenness in the world, then we must acknowledge our power to mend that brokenness. If we have dealt with our painful experiences as far as we can, acknowledged them and recognised the hurt, then we must be able to allow ourselves to try to forget, rather than carry the burden of historic and unmitigable pain with us through life.

Kapparah, the action of yom kippur, does not mean to erase but to cover over. Whatever happened in our lives happened. We can only find ways to engage with and deal with the realities of that historic reality, not to pretend it is over, or it never happened.

I am a huge believer in the skill of forgetting. Whether it be as a communal rabbi being privy to other people’s secrets at difficult times in their lives, or to let go of the pain and anger caused by the behaviour of others, kapparah, covering it from view and not allowing it to direct us or affect us is a skill we all need if we are to continue our lives with some form of equanimity, not held back by past trauma or unfinished business.

Joyfulness is another skill – according to Rabbi Nachman it is a mitzvah – Mitzva gedola lihyot be-simcha tamid,” “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always, and to make every effort to determinedly keep depression and gloom at bay (Likkutei Moharan II:24)  Many synagogues have the motto above their Ark “Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha – serve God with joy” (Psalm 100:2)

Maimonides reminds us One should not be overly elated and laugh, nor be sad and depressed in spirit; rather one should be same’ach (happy) at all times, with a friendly countenance. The same applies with regard to one’s other traits… (Hilchot Deot 1:4)

Traditionally joy is seen as a by-product of doing a mitzvah.

In recent years the idea of learning joy – and the benefits of it – have entered the mainstream. Be it “laughter yoga” or the habit of mindfulness and of cultivating gratitude – focussing on one good event in the day.  Joy and gratitude are embedded in our tradition – indeed the end of the Yamim Noraim will take us to Sukkot and “zeman simchateinu” – the season of our rejoicing. Every morning with the modeh/modah ani prayer we give thanks for our continuing existence, knowing that each day brings with it new possibilities, a new creation.

So I commend Rabbi Nachman with his exhortations to forgetting past pain and cultivating joy. And I would add to those his most famous (probably) saying – that the world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is –not ‘not to be afraid’ as the song would have it, but not to make ourselves afraid.

If we cultivate joy in our lives, if we allow ourselves to forget the pain of our past once we have done all we can to ameliorate and mitigate it; If we remind ourselves that we make ourselves afraid much more than are made afraid, and so we have control over our responses – then we can go into the coming months and years with a tool kit that will sustain and nourish us until our soul departs.   It is not too far from us to do this. It is not over the sea that we have to ask someone to help us achieve it; it is in our hearts and minds if only we make the first step on the journey, transform the “oy” and create joy.

As Rabbi Nachman also taught

זכור תמיד: השמחה איננה עניין שולי במסעך הרוחני – היא חיונית

Always remember: happiness is not a side matter in your spiritual journey – it is essential.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah – have a sweet and a good new year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.