Sermon: Chol HaMoed Sukkot

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 27 September 2021

If you google today’s date, 25 September 2021, you may discover that, as well as being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot (the Shabbat that falls in the middle of the festival of Sukkot), today is Save Your Photos Day. Founded by the Association of Personal Photo Organisers, the day is designed as an invitation to organise our photos and to perhaps reminisce about our lives – to look back at those moments that were important. Whether it is a family wedding or a bar mitzvah or the birth of a new child, we tend to think of those big moments in our lives.

As we move towards the renewal of our building, I’m sure that many of you will have cherished memories of stand-out moments in the Leo Baeck Hall or the Youth Hall, or the library, of community events in years gone by, of family simchahs, of memorable moments of learning or prayer with rabbis and cantors through the history of Alyth.

As part of our operation clear up, preparing our building for the works that will begin very soon, members of the team have been looking through some of the old photos that have been kept at Alyth over the years, and we are particularly privileged to have been gifted many of the photos from the collection of Alec Hasenson z’l. Looking through these photos has been opportunity to remember the history of the building, of the community, of the people who make it up.

Photos are a reminder of the big events both in the grand sweep of history, and in our individual lives. But they can be just as powerful when they catch us unawares in a small moment, whether it is two people sharing a private joke in a corner or bonding while preparing food in the kitchen. These small moments – these moments in between are just as important as the big ones.

One of the things we lost in the pandemic were many of those moments in between – those snatched conversations in between services at shul, the water-cooler moments in the office, the brief exchanges between student and teacher in the corridor. All of these moments have the same potential to be significant and profound. But in Covid, we were often reduced to the set-piece moment – the service, or the meeting, or the class, after which the lights would go out, and we would be abruptly left alone again in our homes.

The festival of Sukkot is perhaps a reminder of this. Why, many people ask, does Sukkot have to follow so closely on the heals of Yom Kippur? Should we not get a bit of a break from doing Jewish for at least a week before we have to dive back in again?

Following the grand spiritual heights of the High Holy Days, Sukkot is the messy, imperfect, continuation of everyday life. The physical Sukkah itself represents those moments in between. As human structures go, the sukkah is among the most temporary we can imagine. The rabbis of the Mishnah tell us that even a sukkah built on the top of a tree is valid. If you’re travelling by sea, and you want to build your sukkah on-board your ship? Valid. If you’re on the road, and you have to build your sukkah on the top of your wagon? Valid. If you’re crossing the desert? The rabbis say even a sukkah built on the back of a camel is valid! The guests – the ushpizin – that we invite into our sukkah do not come for a grand ceremony, but for a simple meal. The sukkah represents everything that is transient and temporary.

The Psalmist says in Psalm 90: Limnot yameinu ken hoda, v’navi l’vav khochmah – ‘teach us to number our days, so that we may obtain a wise heart’. We do not ask God, ultimately, to save us from death. Rather, we ask for an appreciation of our lives, and for the lives of our loved ones. The knowledge of our impermanence is a call to action – to ensure that our lives have an impact on those around us, and that we do something, however small, to make the world a better place in the limited time we have. In the words of John Lennon in a song he wrote for his son: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ And in the words of Ecclesiastes: ‘remember your creator in the days of your youth’ (12:1) – in other words, act now on the things that make you happy and act now on the things that will benefit others. If we had forever, and we did not have to number our days, perhaps we never would.

There is a story (which has been attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) of a great pianist who was asked by an ardent admirer: ‘How do you handle the notes as well as you do?’ He answered: ‘The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes – ah! That is where the art resides.’ ‘In great living, as in great music,’ Heschel says ‘the art may be in the pauses.’ Life cannot be defined just by the exalted moments. In a prayer from the American Reform Siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, Judi Neri writes:


We reached for You [God] down the centuries,

Your light moving before us

as we climbed, fell back and climbed again

Your Sinai of life.


The whole of our lives is equivalent to a moment between Moses and God on the mountain, and this is something that applies to all of us. We are all too often caught up in the big moments, and the greatest of us need to be reminded to acknowledge those little moments, which are just as important.

During Covid there have been just as many of those small, in between moments – whether it has been a short pre-Shabbat phone call to check in with someone who was shielding, or dropping off a challah to someone who is unwell, or waving across a Zoom screen to someone you have not seen in the flesh for 18 months, we have still had those in between moments, and it is just as important to acknowledge, treasure, and appreciate them.

God, the Divine, is just as likely to be found in that still small voice as she is in those big grand moments when we chant Kol Nidre or dance with our scrolls.

Let me end with an appreciation of those big moments, and all those moments in between, that have brought us to today: Blessed are You, ETERNAL one our God, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season. Amen.

And happy Save your photos day!