Sukkot: A Double Legacy

Just five days ago, we were immersed in Yom Kippur, the deepest day of the, aseret s’mey t’shuvah, ‘the ten days of returning’, and now the week-long festival of Sukkot, ‘Huts’ has begun. In between, we have built sukkot – in the case of our shul, two sukkot in two home-based locations – and purchased the lulav and etrog[1] in readiness for observing the last major festival but one before the winter – not forgetting Sh’mini Atzeret – the ‘Eighth Day of Conclusion’, that falls next Monday, when we will celebrate Simchat Torah, the ‘Joy of the Torah’.[2] Are we Jews hyper-active, or what?

Sukkot is a bumper festival, full of rituals and meanings. There is the sukkah itself, the frail temporary shelter, open to the elements that recalls, both, the sheltering presence of God during the forty years our ancestors wandered in the wilderness, and the huts that their descendants erected in the fields at harvest time. Then there are the arba minim, the ‘four species’ – the palm, myrtle and willow branches and the lemon-like etrog – that we wave together with in all directions, to acknowledge the wide world and the universe beyond.

Sukkot also belongs to two festival cycles. On the one hand, beginning on the 15th day of Tishri, it is part of the sacred days which occupy most of the seventh month of the Jewish year, and echoes some of the key messages of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur about the sovereignty of the Eternal One across space and time.  On the other hand, the festival completes the annual cycle of what are known as Shalosh R’galim – literally, the ‘three feet’ festivals. As we read in parashat R’eih, at Deuteronomy 16:16, ‘Three times in the year’, our ancestors made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with their offerings: on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

When we celebrate the Shalosh R’galim – also known as the chaggim – from the root, Cheit Gimmel Gimmel, meaning, ‘to make pilgrimage’, we recall a way of life rooted in making regular offerings of the fruits of an agricultural existence that disappeared almost 2000 years ago when the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. But we are doing more than this, of course: we are reminding ourselves of our unique history and story, as the Jewish people.

To get a real sense of what it meant for all the people to descend on Jerusalem three times a year, we might turn to the continuing Muslim practice of the annual Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which occurs from the 8th to 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar – and is beginning this year on October 24th . Of course, there are differences between Islam and Judaism. Nevertheless, there are also significant similarities. The word hajj is connected, etymologically, to the Hebrew, chag, teaching us that Hebrew and Arabic are closely related – and also that certain key values and practices are shared. So, while, for example, the three chaggim, together with Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, constitute the five major festivals of Judaism, the Hajj is the Fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam.

And there are other parallels. For both Jews and Muslims, prayer is an integral part of daily life – and for Muslims, it is the Second Pillar of Islam. Further, both Judaism and Islam connect fasting with spiritual renewal, and for Muslims fasting during day-light hours in the month of Ramadan is the Third Pillar. A time for reflection and repentance, Ramadan is very similar in tone and atmosphere to the forty day period from first of Elul to Yom Kippur in Jewish practice. Similarly, just as tz’dakah, ‘righteous giving’, is a key mitzvah for Jews, its Arabic equivalent, zakat, is the Fourth Pillar of Islam.

As we have already seen, Hebrew and Arabic are cognate languages, sharing common roots and concepts. This is most evident in the traditional forms of greeting. The Hebrew greeting, ‘Shalom Aleichem’, and Arabic greeting, ‘Salaam Aleikim’, our exact equivalents: both Jews and Muslims say, ‘Peace be upon you’.

And there are still more similarities – not least the fact that both Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork and other pig products, and kill their animals for food by making an incision to the neck.

Does it diminish in any way our sense of our unique identity as the Jewish people and our very particular history, if we recognise connections we share with others? Is it possible for us to remember our distinct narrative in such a way that we, both, reinforce our particularity and deepen our relationships with others? I think that it is – and that each one of the Pilgrim festivals gives us an opportunity to do this.

Pesach reminds us both of our experience of slavery and liberation, and also that the slaves – all the slaves, where ever they are – must go free.

Shavuot reminds us of the joy of our ancestors when they reaped their first fruits in the early summer, and their first encounter with the Eternal One at Mount Sinai, and also that all peoples hunger to enjoy the fruits of their labours and try to transcend their material needs to find direction and meaning for their lives.

Sukkot reminds us of our ancestors’ desert existence and the vital importance of the last harvest before winter, and also that all peoples need shelter and sustenance in the wilderness of the world, which we share.

One of the great gifts of Judaism is that Jewish teaching encompasses both universalistic and particularistic values. We are Jews who are human beings and human beings who are Jews. May our celebration of Sukkot remind us to rejoice, both, in our humanity and in our Jewish identity. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Sukkot 5773 – 1st October 2012

[1] Lulav is the collective name for the branches described in Leviticus 23: 40: ‘And you shall take on the first day 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.’ The etrog – a lemon-like citrus is the ‘fruit of a goodly tree’ – eitz hadar.

[2] Sh’mini Atzeret, like Sukkot is one of the biblical festivals (see Leviticus chapter 23 for the biblical calendar). In Progressive Judaism, the post-biblical festival of Simchat Torah, instituted by the rabbis to mark the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings and their resumption again, is held on Sh’mini Atzeret. For Orthodox Jews, Simchat Torah is held the day after Sh’mini Atzeret.