Jonathan Sacks – Succot In a Nutshell
tells us to: “Live in succot for sev-en days: All native-born Israelites are to live in succot so that your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in succot when I brought them out of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:42-43).
There are two opinions in the Mishnah. Rabbi Eliezer held that the succah represents the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Israelites during the wilderness years, protecting them from heat during the day and the cold during the night, and bathing them with the radiance of the Divine presence. Rabbi Akiva on the other hand said, “Succot mammash”, meaning a succah is a succah, no more and no less: it is a hut, a booth, a temporary dwelling. It has no symbolism. It is what it is.
If we follow Rabbi Eliezer then it is obvious why we celebrate by making a succah. It is there to remind us of a miracle. All three pilgrimage festivals are about miracles. Pesach is about the miracle of the Exodus, Shavuot is about the miracle of the revelation at Mount Sinai, and Succot is about God’s tender care of His peo-ple, during the journey across the desert. But according to Rabbi Akiva, a succah is merely a hut, so what was the miracle? There is nothing unusual about living in a hut if you are living a nomadic existence in the desert. Why should there be a festival dedicated to something ordi-nary, commonplace and non-miraculous?
Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) says the succah was there to remind the Israelites of their past so that at the very moment they were feeling the greatest satisfaction at living in Israel – at the time of the ingathering of the produce of the land – they should remember their lowly origins. They were once a group of refugees without a home, never knowing when they would have to move on. The festival of Succot, according to Rashbam, exists to remind us of our humble origins so that we never fall into the complacency of taking freedom, the land of Israel and the blessings it yields, for granted.
However, there is another way of understanding Rabbi Akiva. The succah repre-sents the courage the Israelites had to travel, to move, to leave security behind, and follow God’s call, as did Avraham and Sarah at the dawn of our history. According to Rabbi Akiva the succah is the temporary home of a temporarily homeless people. It symbolised the courage of a bride willing to follow her husband on a risk-laden journey to a place she had never seen before – a love that showed itself in the fact that she was willing to live in a hut, trusting her husband’s promise that one day they would have a permanent home.
What is truly remarkable is that Succot is called, by tradition, zeman simchateinu, “our time of joy.” That, to me, is the wonder at the heart of the Jewish experience: that Jews throughout the ages were able to experience risk and uncertain-ty at every level of their existence and yet they were still able to rejoice. That is spiritual cour-age of a high order. Faith is not certainty; faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. Faith is the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, travelling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination
Succot for Our Time
OF ALL THE FESTIVALS,
Succot is surely the one that speaks most powerfully to our time. Kohelet (which we read on Succot) could almost have been written in the twen-ty-first centu-ry. Here is the ultimate suc-cess, the man who has it all – the houses, the cars, the clothes, the adoring wom-en, the envy of all men – who has pursued everything this world can offer from pleasure to possessions to power to wisdom, and yet who, surveying the totality of his life, can only say, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”
Kohelet’s failure to find meaning is directly re-lated to his obsession with the “I” and the “Me”: “I built for myself. I gathered for myself. I ac-quired for myself.” The more he pursues his de-sires, the emptier his life becomes. There is no more powerful critique of the consumer society, whose idol is the self, whose icon is the “selfie” and whose moral code is “Whatever works for you.” This is reflected in today’s society that achieved unprecedented affluence, giving people more choices than they had ever known, and yet at the same time saw an unprecedented rise in alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, stress-related syndromes, depression, attempted suicide and actual suicide. A society of tourists, not pilgrims, is not one that will yield the sense of a life worth living. Of all things people have chosen to worship, the self is the least fulfilling. A culture of narcissism quickly gives way to loneliness and despair.
By the end of the book, Kohelet finds meaning in simple things. “Sweet is the sleep of a labour-ing man. Enjoy life with the woman you love. Eat, drink and enjoy the sun.” That, ultimately, is the meaning of Succot as a whole. It is a festival of simple things. It is, Jewishly, the time we come closer to nature than any other, sitting in a hut with only leaves for a roof, and taking in our hands the unprocessed fruits and foliage of the palm branch, the citron, twigs of myrtle and leaves of willow. It is a time when we briefly liberate ourselves from the sophisticated pleas-ures of the city and the processed artifacts of a technological age, and recapture some of the innocence we had when we were young, when the world still had the radiance of wonder.
REFLECT: Think about this message and whether it speaks to us even more this year as we continue to live with the threat of the global coronavirus pandemic.
THE POWER OF SUCCOT
is that it takes us back to the most elemental roots of our being. You don’t need to live in a palace to be sur-rounded by Clouds of Glory. You don’t need to be rich to buy yourself the same leaves and fruit that a billionaire uses in worshiping God. Living in the succah and inviting guests to your meal, you discover – such is the premise of Ushpizin, the mystical guests – that the people who have come to visit you are none other than Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov and their wives. What makes a hut more beautiful than a home is that when it comes to Succot, there is no difference between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. We are all strangers on earth, temporary residents in God’s almost eternal universe. And whether or not we are ca-pable of pleasure, whether or not we have found happiness, we can all feel joy.
REFLECT: What new sources of joy and appreciation have you found in your life since the world changed earlier this year?
SUCCOT IS THE TIME
we ask the most profound question of what makes a life worth living. Having prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be written in the Book of Life, Succot and Kohelet force us to remember how brief life actually is, and how vulnerable. “Teach us rightly to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Tehillim 90:12). What matters is not how long we live, but how intensely we feel that life is a gift we repay by giving to others. Joy, the overwhelming theme of the festival, is what we feel when we know that it is a privilege simply to be alive, inhaling the intoxicating beauty of this moment amidst the profusion of nature, the teeming diversity of life and the sense of communion with those many others with whom we share a history and a hope.
REFLECT: Do you know someone, either personally or indirectly, who lost their life to COVID-19? How has that changed your perspective on life?
MOST MAJESTICALLY OF ALL, Succot is the festival of insecurity. It is the candid acknowledgment that there is no life without risk, yet we can face the future without fear when we know we are not alone. God is with us, in the rain that brings blessings to the earth, in the love that brought the universe and us into being, and in the resilience of spirit that allowed a small and vulnerable people to outlive the greatest empires the world has ever known. Succot reminds us that God’s glory was present in the small, portable Tabernacle that Moshe and the Israelites built in the desert even more emphatically than in Solomon’s Temple with all its grandeur. A temple can be destroyed. But a succah, broken, can be rebuilt tomorrow. Secu-rity is not something we can achieve physically but it is something we can acquire mentally, psychologically, spiritually. All it needs is the courage and willingness to sit under the shadow of God’s sheltering wings.
The succah became in the course of time a symbol, not only of forty years in the wilder-ness, but of centuries of exile and dispersion. In the Middle Ages alone, Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France several times (1182, 1322, 1394), from Vienna in 1421, Co-logne in 1424, Bavaria in 1442, Milan in 1489 and most traumatically, from Spain in 1492. In the 1880s a wave of pogroms in Eastern Europe sent millions of Jews into flight to the West, and these migrations continue even today. Jewish history reads like a vast continuation of the stages of the Israelites’ journey in the thirty-sec-ond chapter of the book of Bamidbar: “They traveled…and they encamped…. They trave-led…and they encamped.” Too often, home turned out to be no more than a temporary dwelling, a succah. More than most, whether in the land of Israel or elsewhere, Jews have known the full force of insecurity.
Yet with its genius for the unexpected and its ability to rescue hope from tragedy, Judaism declared this festival of insecurity to be zeman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. For the succah, that quintessential symbol of vulnera-bility, turns out to be the embodiment of faith, the faith of a people who forty centuries ago set out on a risk-laden journey across a wilderness of space and time, with no more protection than the sheltering presence of the Shechinah. Sitting in the succah under its canopy of leaves, I often think of my ancestors and their wan-derings across Europe in search of safety, and I begin to understand how faith was their only home. It was fragile, chillingly exposed to the storms of prejudice and hate. But it proved stronger than superpowers and outlived them all.
Toward the end of his great book, A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson wrote: The Jews were not just innovators. They were also exemplars and epitomisers of the human condition. They seemed to present all the inescapable dilemmas of man in a heightened and clarified form…. The Jews were the emblem of homeless and vulnera-ble humanity. But is not the whole earth no more than a temporary transit camp? Those words go to the heart of Succot. To know that life is full of risk and yet to affirm it, to sense the full insecurity of the human situation and yet to rejoice: this, for me, is the essence of faith. Judaism is no comforting illusion that all is well in this dark world. It is instead the courage to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty, and to rejoice even in the transitory shelter of the succah, the Jewish symbol of home.