Sukkot – like many of the other festivals of the Jewish calendar – has more than one name. Its primary name: Sukkot – traditionally, translated as ‘Tabernacles’, and more recently as ‘Booths’ or ‘Huts’ – reflects two crucial aspects of our commemoration: we recall, both, our ancestors’ wanderings in the wilderness for forty years and their settled existence in the land they entered at the end of their long and perilous journey, when, living as farmers, they would build sukkot in their fields to provide essential shelter from the sun at harvest-time. And so, Sukkot has another name: in Exodus chapter 23, it is called: Chag Ha-Asif b’zeit ha-shanah – ‘the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year’(:16). And it is because it is a harvest festival, in addition to building a sukkah, and ‘dwelling’ in it, we also shake a bundle known collectively as ‘the lulav’ – which includes a citrus-fruit – etrog – a palm branch – lulav – three myrtle twigs and two willow twigs – all representing the ‘fruits’ of the land outlined in Leviticus chapter 23 (:40).
In the wilderness, our ancestors actually lived in tents – ohalim – rather than in sukkot – huts – although the Torah says explicitly, in Emor, our portion today, in Leviticus chapter 23 (:42-43):
You shall dwell in sukkot seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in sukkot; / [so] that your generations know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal One your God.
Elsewhere, in Deuteronomy chapter 8 (:2-5), the Torah teaches that the Eternal One sustained our ancestors during their years in the wilderness. Hovering in a cloud before them by day (Exodus 40:34-38), in a crucial sense, God was their sukkah. This image of the Eternal One as a tangible presence was later reflected in some of our prayers; like the Hashkiveinu – the second blessing after the Sh’ma, read during evening services – which conjures up an image a mother-bird, sheltering her young under her wings, as it appeals to God: u’phros Aleynu sukkat sh’lomecha – ‘spread over us the shelter of your peace’ – and, also: u’v’zeil k’nafecha tastireinu – ‘cover us in the shadow of your wings’.
Night-time is a wilderness of sorts; a realm of darkness, when we cease our purposeful activities and pursuits, retreat from the world – and immerse ourselves in what the poet Marge Piercy calls, ‘the roaring vat of dreams’ (1). During the night, submerged terrors can be reawakened and, in a real sense, we re-enter the terrain of childhood vulnerability. Night-time is also our daily reminder that one day our lives will cease altogether. And so – although we have our beds and their sheltering, comforting, bed-clothes – the appeal to the sheltering presence of God, covering us in the shadow of her wings.
Hashkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu, l’shalom, v’ha’amideinu, malkeinu, l’chayyim, ‘Grant Eternal One, our God, that we may lie down in peace and cause us to rise up, our sovereign, to Life’ – L’chayyim ‘To Life! – the Jewish toast. The opening line of Hashkiveinu expresses our primordial fear of the night, and also our perennial hope every day of our waking lives: Each day is a new opportunity to live and to rejoice in our lives. The rabbis called the feast of Sukkot, Z’man Simchateinu – ‘the Season of our Rejoicing’, because the Torah exhorts us – both in Leviticus 23 (:40) and, again, at Deuteronomy chapter 16 – to ‘rejoice’ (:13-14). And the passage in Deuteronomy makes it clear that the rejoicing is for everyone:
You shall keep the feast of Sukkot seven days, after you have gathered in from your threshing floor and from your wine-press. / Then you shall rejoice in your feast, you, your son, and your daughter, and your man-servant and your maid-servant, and the Levite, and the sojourner, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your gates.
Sukkot is a time of celebration for the whole community – including all who are vulnerable and marginal in our midst. Sukkot is a reminder that everyone alive shares the same basic needs for food and shelter. And perhaps, we can appreciate the significance of the festival more deeply, if we remember that in Temple times, when are ancestors lived as farmers in the land, the autumn ‘ingathering’ was absolutely crucial to their survival; after Sh’mini Atzeret, the eighth day of ‘closure’ following Sukkot, there were no more gatherings of the people until Pesach the following spring, and they relied completely on the fruits of their last harvest through the barren winter months. No wonder they ‘rejoiced’ in the harvest; if the harvest was not good, they risked starvation. And still today, over two thousand years later, there are places – especially on the continent of Africa – where people are starving because drought conditions have meant that the harvest did not come.
L’Chayyim! To Life! The Jewish toast is an exuberant assertion of our capacity to celebrate life – and all that it brings – knowing that we face dangers every day and that life can be snuffed out in a moment. L’Chayyim! The simple toast expresses both a deep wisdom about life – and our resilience as a people: beset not only with the ordinary challenges of day to day existence, but also with extraordinary dangers and existential threats ‘from Egypt even until now’ (2). Yes, ‘even until now’; in the past week or so, as the news emerged about Iran’s ‘other’ nuclear facility and the Iranian president reiterated his holocaust-denying invective, the words of Leo Baeck, writing as a captive of the Nazis in Terezin, seemed to take on their full force once again: yes, ‘from Egypt even until now’; from Pharaoh until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But ‘from Egypt until now’ we have not only been persecuted and murdered, we have also risen again, and again to renewed life. It’s as if the Hashkiveinu prayer expressing the individual’s personal hope for new life each day, has been realised, day after day, epoch after epoch, in our continued existence as a people – ‘from Egypt even until now’: both the daily threat and the daily promise; both are true.
And yet: although our collective experience as a people has been extraordinary, and continues to be extraordinary, as we continue to live on the edge of catastrophe – or between catastrophes – and continue to build and to celebrate Jewish life; although, in a profound sense, we have lived and continue to live the wisdom of Jewish teaching: we seem to have also forgotten our story as a people; or, perhaps, forgotten how to connect our people’s great narrative to our own personal lives; which means that we may no longer feel nourished and inspired by our people’s epic journey of triumph and defeat and triumph and defeat and triumph… as we face the challenges of our own lives.
Perhaps the issue is that we really only live consciously as Jews in pieces and parts of our lives – in synagogue or on Shabbat and the festivals – so that at other times and in other places, we may be unable to access the resources of Jewish teaching and experience to help us and give us strength, when, either, we or a loved one is seriously ill or dies, or we are made redundant, or we go through a divorce.
And it’s not just that we may be unable to access our Jewish inheritance at these other times and in these other places; we are also exposed at these other times and in these other places to prevailing ideas and social attitudes about life and death that may run directly counter to the wisdom of Jewish experience and teaching, like for example – and it’s an example that gets to the heart of the messages of Sukkot – prevailing ideas and social attitudes that seem to centre on ensuring that our lives are completely risk-free and we are protected from every possible source of danger: illness, physical injury, the harmful actions of others – both at home and in the wider community. Of course, it is good to do what we can to cure diseases, prevent accidents, and safe-guard both children and vulnerable adults from those who might hurt them in anyway. But there is another kind of danger we face if we become risk averse and obsessed with safe-guarding ourselves and others altogether from any possible harm: we risk losing our resilience and our ability to deal with what Shakespeare called, ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (4); we risk becoming imprisoned by our fears; we risk imprisoning others, both physically and psychologically – especially, our children, who must step out and explore life for themselves, in order to grow and become well-adjusted adults. The first human beings had to leave the Garden of Eden and go out into the world – that is one of the key messages of the narrative we find in the first portion of the Torah, B’reishit, which we will read again, when we re-commence the cycle of Torah readings after Simchat Torah. The first human beings inhabited a garden, which contained everything they needed – except, because it provided them with everything they needed to be safe and well, it couldn’t provide the one thing they had to have to live independent, productive lives: freedom to roam and freedom to make choices, take risks, and discover life for themselves.
From a Jewish point of view, while leaving the Garden of Eden involved suffering and loss, and represented the first of many exiles for humanity, it was also the beginning of growth and new life.
And that is the other important lesson of Jewish experience and teaching. The biblical Book of Kohelet – Ecclesiastes – we read on Sukkot tells us: ‘To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven: / A time to be born and a time to die’ (3:1-2). But life does not only include, both, joy and sorrow; abundance and loss; loss can also be a pathway to renewal. One of our members, who is currently experiencing the biggest challenge of his life, recites the 23rd Psalm every day – sometimes more than once: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me’. ‘The valley of the shadow of death’ is a terrifying place, but it is also a passageway, however narrow – like Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav’s gesher tzar m’od – ‘very narrow bridge’ (4) – a passageway that we can navigate, however hard it is to do so. Yes, death itself may stop us in our tracks, but, otherwise, we keep on ‘walking’ – either physically or metaphorically, or both – whatever the disaster; we pass through the valley and emerge once more into new life. That’s what all those survivors of the tsunami in Samoa and the earthquake in Indonesia are doing right now. And that’s what millennia of Jewish experience and teaching urges us all to do. May this festival of Sukkot inspire us to embrace Life and strive to rise up to the challenge of renewing our lives, whatever the circumstances, each and every day. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Sukkot 5770 – 3rd October 2009
(1) ‘The task never completed’ in The Art of Blessing the Day. Poems on Jewish Themes by Marge Piercy. Five Leaves Publications, 1988, pp.82-3.
(2) This People Israel by Leo Baeck. Translated by Albert H. Friedlander. UAHC, 1964
(3) Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1
(4) ‘All the world, all of it, is a very narrow bridge but the essential thing is never to be afraid.’ (Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, 1722-1810, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov).