Sukkot: Chag Ha-Asif, the ‘Feast of Ingathering’ and Z’man Simchateinu, the ‘Season of our Rejoicing’. And yet, just five days before Sukkot: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we confess our errors and misdeeds and seek forgiveness. And before Yom Kippur: aseret y’mey t’shuvah, the days of T’shuvah, ‘Turning’, that commence on Rosh Ha-Shanah.
At first sight, Sukkot seems completely unconnected with yamim nora’im, the ‘Days of Awe’. Indeed, Sukkot belongs to another cycle. It is the third of the three ‘Pilgrim Festivals’; so-called because in ancient times, our ancestors went up to Jerusalem on foot with their offerings three times in the year: for the spring feast of Pesach; to mark the early summer ‘First Fruits’ festival of Shavuot; and to celebrate the late summer harvest at Sukkot.
And yet, beginning on the 15th day of the seventh month, the month of Tishri, Sukkot is connected to the Days of Awe that commence on the first day of the seventh month.
As we step out into the unknown and begin a New Year, the sukkah, the fragile shelter we build in remembrance of our ancestors’ wilderness wanderings reminds us of the plight of the homeless and destitute, the fragility of our own lives, and the impermanence of material things.
But that’s not the only connection between Sukkot and the ‘awed days’ that precede it. The lulav we hold and shake in all the directions of the compass, as well as towards the heavens and the earth, has something important to teach us about the journeys of our lives.
The term lulav is used to describe all the elements we hold and shake, but actually, it refers specifically to the palm-branch. The straight branch of the palm reminds us that however much the paths we take may twist and turn from the moment we are born; we may only travel in one direction – towards our deaths.
On either side of the palm, we find small sprigs of leaves: Together they represent all the different journeys we may make in the course of our lives; all the various places we may find ourselves as we step out into the world.
The willow leaves – long and narrow – are the narrow alleyways, where we sometimes lose our way; the narrow bridges we must cross, lest we fall into deep ravines.
And there are two sprigs of willow leaves to teach us that there are always at least two possibilities before us: We can either get through the alleyway, or stay trapped; we can either cross over the bridge, or fall…
The myrtle leaves are quite different: thicker, and almost round. Sometimes we find ourselves going round and round in circles; always returning to the same place, again and again, getting nowhere, despite all our efforts.
And there are three sprigs of myrtle leaves to show us the three steps we need to take if we are going to stop going round and round, forever retelling our familiar tales:
The first step is simply to acknowledge that we are constantly repeating ourselves;
The second step is to make a conscious decision, either to continue or to change course;
The third step is to act – to either move on or stay where we are.
The etrog, the yellow citrus fruit that looks like a large lemon is very different from the palm, the willow and the myrtle. For one thing it is brightly coloured; it also smells lovely and is edible.
The etrog represents the fruit of our lives. We all produce fruit: wherever we go; whatever we do; whatever choices we make. Like the proverbial ‘golden egg’, the etrog, bright and beautiful, is the treasure, the prize, the reward we seek. And yet, while it is enticing to look at, the bitter flesh beneath the skin can set ones teeth on edge.
But whether we produce golden eggs or fruit with bitter flesh, we can transform our lives. Some lay golden eggs and then smash them; some seem to produce only the most bitter of bitter lemons, and then find a way of turning them into a delicious jam. We make our choices, and then we can make other choices.
So, although each one of us is moving inexorably from birth to death, the possibilities for how we journey and what we create – and destroy – are endless. Even when we find ourselves in the narrowest of narrow places, or seem trapped in a seemingly endless round, we can move and change direction.
All the possibilities for our lives are in our hands. When we hold the palm, the willow, the myrtle and the etrog, let us also imagine ourselves holding the possibilities for our lives together and waving them in every conceivable direction – east, south, west, and north; towards the sky and towards the earth. Perhaps then that moment of gathering and holding may become something else. It may become an opportunity for expressing our readiness to take responsibility for our lives, and our willingness to see our lives in perspective – in the context of the wider world around us, and of Eternity beyond us.
So, as we wave the lulav this Sukkot, and shake the bundles we hold three times in every direction, let us do so in a spirit of hopefulness. Wherever we have been over the past year; whatever we have created or destroyed, our past choices need not determine our future choices. We can shake everything up and start again.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Ve’rei’ut
27 September 2015 – E rev Sukkot 5768