Sermon – Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot
Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 16 October 2022
“I know exactly how you feel”
Has anyone ever said that to you? How did you respond?
I may think I know how you feel, and I may be trying hard to be empathic, but even if I have been through a similar experience to yours, unless we are really close friends, I probably don’t know how you feel. You might appreciate my good intention, but you are just as likely to resent my intrusion into your moment of distress or confusion, and my assumption that I know you better than you know yourself.
What about the following:
“Don’t be sad, Mummy….”
“You shouldn’t feel bad…..”
“You should be ashamed of yourself…”
“Be glad it isn’t worse….”
Can we be instructed – or even commanded – to be in a particular emotional state? Do we have a choice in the matter? Can a request or instruction like that actually make a useful difference to how we experience a situation, or how we express our response to it?
Jewish tradition seems to think so. After all, we say it twice a day in the Shema: V’ahavta et Adonai Eloheikha – you are to love your Eternal God…
And in one of our Torah readings this morning, we are told:
Sava’ta: be satisfied
V’Samakhta b’Chageikha – you are to rejoice in your festival, and in the following verse:
v’hayyita akh sameakh – you are to be really joyful!
Torah really does seem to be telling us what we ought to feel.
Sukkot is החג he-chag – the festival – the festival celebrating the main harvest of the year. Of course there is joy and relief that we have made it through Yom Kippur, and if the harvest is successful – why do we need to be told to be joyful? On the other hand how can we rejoice if the harvest hasn’t been great and the weather is awful, and we are unsure whether there will be enough food (or heat, or money) to see us through the winter?
Sukkot is also the season when we are instructed to live in frail temporary dwellings, ‘to remember wandering in the desert’, to reflect on the frailty of our own lives, and – as Rabbi Hannah reminded us last night – to be aware that for too many millions across the planet, sleeping in a Sukkah is not a one-night or one-week adventure but a reality of life, when even a semi-permanent Ikea-style flatpack hut feels like a palace after months in a tent.
If the word sameach/joy repeats through the Torah readings about Sukkot, the word which echoes again and again through Ecclesiastes/Kohelet (whose first chapter is our Haftarah this morning) is הבל –
Hevel: classically translated as ‘vanity’, although modern translations prefer ‘futility’ or ‘absurdity’ – something that doesn’t follow logic or reason….
Hevel: breath, vapour, transience, the name of Adam and Eve’s murdered child (Abel), who left nothing behind except his name….
Scholars have debated since Talmudic times what the true message of Kohelet is, why it is included in the Bible, and why we read it at Sukkot. The first chapter is full of words like vexation, weary, heartache…. Later in the book are other famous phrases, including an instruction to ‘eat and drink, and enjoy your pointless life’. It doesn’t feel at first reading particularly grateful, or religious at all.
I would like to suggest that in this morning’s context, Deuteronomy and Kohelet taken together do offer a helpful approach. We cannot escape the fact that our lives are frail and finite. We may have no control over much of what happens to us, but we do have some choice about our response.
Just because I may not yet have figured out the ‘meaning of life’, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Kohelet may be saying NOT so much ‘everything is pointless’, but rather ‘This is what there is – get on with it…enjoy it… And far from asking the impossible of us, Deuteronomy is giving us clues about how to do that, how to find some fulfilment:
Looking more closely at the Torah texts:
- Achalta v’sava’ta – uveirachta: Be satisfied, eat your fill – and say ‘thank you’. In other words, try to maintain an ‘attitude of gratitude’ rather than dissatisfaction. Because being in the habit of ‘hakarat hatov’, acknowledging what it good, can make the world seem like a better place.
- Zacharta: Remember, don’t forget – don’t fall prey to what a writer in this week’s JC called ‘affluenza’ – the ennui that comes from getting too used to having more than we need.
- At the end of Yom Kippur, the penultimate line of Avinu Malkeinu was the plea to God ‘al tashlicheinu reikam milfaneikha’ – Please do not send us away empty. Today during Sukkot we are reminded Lo yeira’eh reikam– do not appear before God empty-handed – bring or give according to the blessing bestowed on you.
Giving, contributing, not in our case to the Temple, but to the maintenance of the community, doesn’t only help others, but gives our own lives meaning and helps us to remember how blessed we are.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach
 Deuteronomy 6:5
 Deut 16: 14-15