Sermon: Let’s Get Physical – Chol HaMoed Sukkot 2010

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 28 September 2010

What is the Jewish holiday that means the most to you and why?  That is often a question which I ask when I am on the other side of the table at the Movement for Reform Judaism Bet Din of a person on the way to converting to Judaism.  It’s a good way of coming to understand how much the person has truly engaged with the message and reality of Judaism not a question about knowledge but a question about experience on Judaism and what it has come to mean for them.

The answers usually, as Rabbi Minday Portnoy points out, are the ones that fit nicely with our current thinking and behaviour patterns. Yom Kippur is a time for serious introspection and soul-searching which we all need at some point in our life. Hanukkah is a time to celebrate religious freedom, minority rights, and multi-culturalism – an ideal message for a Londoner who confronts these issues every day. Passover is a time to rejoice in redemption from tyranny and oppression – which we hear about in the news every year . Purim is a joyous release of inhibitions and energies embedded in a serious message about anti-Semitism. These are usually our favourite holidays. They are easy to explain to people outside of Judaism and filled with the right messages for ourselves and our children.

Sukkot, on the other hand,can a real challenge. It comes right after the High Holidays, when we’ve been so inundated with Jewish substance that some of us feel the need to come up for a breath of secular air . Build a hut in our  garden? Take another day off from work or school? Can’t it wait until next month— why does it have to come just five days after the biggest day of the Jewish year?   A half joking complaint heard many times this week in the corridors of Alyth.

But of course harvests do not wait. And since they don’t, and we are out of breath, many of us celebrate Sukkot quite perfunctorily, enjoying the special decorations and fragrances in the Sukkah if we come to visit it, but otherwise taking little notice of what seems like a High Holiday afterthought. Simchat Torah revives our spirits once again, but Sukkot has passed us by, and if we are left with anything, it is likely the sense that our ancestors just didn’t know about the pressures of modern life.

And yet Sukkot, if we take a few minutes to contemplate it, is really a challenge in a much more profound way. Although it is no longer celebrated as He-chag, the holiday par excellence that it was in Biblical times, it has the potential to confront us with demands even more difficult than fasting on Yom Kippur, asking forgiveness, eating Matzah for seven days, or being Jewish in December.

Rabbi Portnoy suggests that  there are three central theological messages of the holiday, and all of them are tough for the thinking Jews of the Twenty First Century.

The first is that nature and the outside world—the smells, sounds, and sights of the universe—are as central to Judaism as anything that goes on inside our heads. I have’t been camping since I was in the scouts.  Most of the time I am an inside person. When I go outside, I want to be comfortable. I avoid tents, insects, and bad weather whenever possible. Along comes this festival that asks me to eat outside like 60 Alyth young people will as they eat and then camp outside in the Sukkah for our Sukkot Sleepout tonight, hammer nails, cut down the excess of our gardens  for the scach (the covering of the Sukkah), and say prayers over a palm branch, willow, or myrtle. It asks me to praise God daily for agricultural bounties which I personally never harvest except for a few raspberries and blackberries from our garden.

Yet what we all remember from our childhood experience of Sukkot is exactly that—the physicality of it, the smell of the spilled wine mixing with the foliage in our sukkah, the waving of the lulav and the bright lemon yellow etrog leaving its perfume on our hands. Once again, I am wrenched out of the cerebral self-searching of Yom Kippur and brought back to the earth, where I am reminded of nature, God’s creation of the physical world, and the need to bless and take care of it.

Without the challenge of Sukkot every year, the Zebra grass in our garden would remain nothing but a fast growing nuisance, a part of that natural world too messy, uncertain, and uncontrolled to pay much attention to.  The blessings of our Torah portion from of abundance in wine, oil and corn would mean nothing much to us who can take such a good harvest for granted as it is always available to us from our supermarket shelves.

The second message of Sukkot may be even harder. This message tells us that possessions mean nothing, that our landed property is a sham, that the only reliable dwelling-place is a rickety hut in one’s backyard. Everybody and anybody can build a Sukkah – it just needs some nails, some wood and some leaves.Like the symbolism of the plain pine box, but at a happier time, Sukkot reminds us of the absolute equality of rich and poor. Everyone’s soup gets rained on. Everyone’s willow dies by the fifth, sixth, or seventh day. Everyone’s sukkah is fragile, temporary, and open to the winds and storms. It is a message we would rather not hear—we in our protected, well-sheltered edifices—but it is an inescapable message, and Sukkot, this overlooked holiday, is its Jewish vehicle.  The only true protection from the winds of life is the people with whom we spend our lives, our family, our friends, our community and God – listen to the Megillah of Kohelet which Tertia read to us today – it is not what we make with our hands that has lasting value – it is those we join with our hearts that stay with us.

The third message of Sukkot is that in addition to the natural world’s centrality, and the human being’s ultimate vulnerability, the Jewish focal point is the land of Israel. The harvest we honour is a Middle Eastern one. The rains we pray for in the traditional prayers are based on the timing of the rainy season’s commencement in Israel, not here.  Though perhaps on Sukkot morning when we could not go out into the Sukkah due to the downpour we might be forgiven for thinking that the rainy season had come here in London.  The four spieces we wave are native to the land of Israel – even imported directly from there. When it comes to Sukkot, we’re in the wrong place. Yom Kippur is so universal we know we can be anywhere, but Sukkot is about the real earth, real bodies, and a real land.  It re-grounds Judaism in its birthplace. One of the things you find striking in Israel at this time of year is that so many people build a sukkah, even the jaded, secular Israelis. It is part of the general cultural ambience. In our part of West Finchley the Sukkah in our back garden sticks out and says irregular people live here.

But perhaps these three messages are intentionally provocative. We sink to the depths on Yom Kippur, but emerge smugly selfrighteous. We’ve done it again. We’ve fasted. God has forgiven us. We’re okay for another year. But before too many days go by, Sukkot assaults us with these three messages:  You people of books, writings, and computers, remember the earth and nature. Remember to protect your environment. Remember how easily it disintegrates. You people of possessions, remember that all is dust. Remember your comfort the rest of the year. Take care of the comfort and basic needs of others.

You people of the diaspora, remember a land that was once your real home and will always be your spiritual home. Keep well attuned to its seasonal rhythms and agricultural melodies. It too is fragile, vulnerable, and subject to the storms of history, politics, and shifting alliances.

Sukkot, after all, reminds us that, as Jews, we’re always a little bit out of sync, living a religion which challenges the powers that be in the world – the prosperous, the empire builder, the tyrant.” Sukkot is our best Jewish reminder of this quintessential Jewish characteristic, a challenge to smugness, a provocation to passivity. So do smell the fragrances of the sukkah this year, do touch its fragile walls, do remember a land where the rainy season has not yet begun. Don’t let Sukkot go by again. It has too much to teach about life, about ourselves, and about what being Jewish really means.

One last message – note from our Torah portion who is meant to come and celebrate Sukkot with us.  Not only you, your children and your household but also the Orphan and Widow. (Deuteronomy 16:14)  Sukkot, symbolised by the diverse species bound together in the Lulav tells us that we are a community – formed by the covenant on Yom Kippur and ever together, excluding no-one.  On Tuesday night 6th October, Simon Morris, Chief Executive of Jewish Care is speaking here at Alyth, beginning our Welfare Evening, organised by Lynette.  On that evening we will be learning from Simon Morris and others on the subjects such as dementia and the spirituality of ageing.  The Orphan and the Widow in our texts are always examples of the dispossessed – Sukkot tells us be open to them and to include them.  Our Welfare evening this year will be a beginning of ensuring that such openness remains core to our community.