Sermon: Sukkot and the Suspension of English reserve (or, why shaking a lulav is good for you)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 October 2014

On 14 October 1663, the acclaimed diarist Samuel Pepys – most famous for his accounts of the plague and the Great Fire of London – made his one visit to a synagogue – the synagogue at Creechurch Lane, later Bevis Marks.

Thence home, he wrote in his famous diary, and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight… Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.

And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing…

But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall…

Unfortunately, the day that Pepys visited synagogue happened to be Simchat Torah, and so he left Creechurch lane with an opinion of synagogue based entirely on one of the more raucous occasions in the calendar.  Convinced that Jewish religious life was wild, absurd and disturbing, having witnessed the Hakkafot, the processions, the dancing, the simchat torah – the joy of Torah.

It’s possible, though he doesn’t reference it, that he even witnessed drinking – The festival of Simchat Torah being one of the days of the year when loosening oneself through the consumption of alcohol is the done thing.  On Simchat Torah the priestly blessing is even included in the Shacharit Amidah – in the morning service instead of in its normal place in the mussaf service – because priests are not allowed to officiate whilst inebriated!

Of course, had Pepys come to Shul a week earlier of course, he would have left with a different set of prejudices, having witnessed something equally odd – he would have seen the men of Creechurch lane waving branches and leaves at the sky, and smelling oversized lemons.

Had he visited Creechurch lane earlier in the same week as he did, and accidentally come on Hoshanah Rabbah, he would have witnessed those same branches and leaves being processed around the synagogue, and maybe even the beating of willows on the synagogue floor.

Well might he have asked “could I have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”?


Of course, anyone else’s religious ritual can look strange if you don’t know what it represents.

But these two weeks of our year are filled with ritual that even to those of us who are immersed in Jewish life, who can quote the Halachah – and the Aggadah – of these rituals – even we have to recognise what we are doing as being, well, rather absurd.
Every year I have to explain all this to our Gateway class, to those who are coming to Judaism fresh – and, you know what, it feels just a touch silly.

It is possible, of course, to intellectualise these moments.
We can say, this lulav and etrog business are the way in which a cerebral, monotheistic religion harnessed and controlled a pagan rain ritual and gave it both structure and theological meaning.
We can say that – and it’s probably true – but to account for something cannot make the experience of doing it into something different.

Picking up, waving, smelling is a fundamentally physical act.
It is one that forces us to do something that feels silly.  It forces us to suspend our rationality to, to engage with something a little childlike.
It is not something, as grown ups, we might do easily – especially those of us with classical English upbringings.  To give ourselves to absurdity – to wave branches, to dance at Simchat Torah, these go against the grain.

At this time of year Judaism forces us to suspend that English reserve, despite ourselves.  The great philosopher and halachist of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, was familiar with this problem – he wrote:

The happiness with which a person should rejoice in the fulfilment of the Mitzvot and the love of God who commanded them is a great service.  Whoever holds himself back from this rejoicing is worthy of retribution, as it states in Deuteronomy (in the section of curses): “…because you did not serve your God with happiness and a glad heart.”

And here, he writes of the Englishman – though he didn’t know it:
Whoever holds himself aloft, giving himself honour, and acts proudly in this situation is a sinner and a fool. Concerning this, Solomon warned in the Book of Proverbs: “Do not seek glory before the King.”
But anyone who lowers himself and thinks lightly of his person in these situations is a great person, worthy of honour, who serves God out of love.

Thus, even David, King of Israel, declared: “I will hold myself even more lightly esteemed than this and be humble in my own eyes,” because there is no greatness or honour other than celebrating before God, as it states in the Book of Samuel: “King David was dancing wildly and whistling before God.”

In other words – it is the Mitzvah of this period not to take oneself too seriously.  Wave, dance and be joyful, whether it is your nature or not.


What is going on here?

Ours is a religion with a deeply intellectual life.  It is one of the things that makes it so powerful and wonderful.  But this time of year reminds us of the importance of the joy.  It is one of the great insights of Hassidic Judaism that we need that joy, alongside the thoughtfulness, to be close to God.  That the cerebral is important, but without the joy we leave a little bit of ourselves unfulfilled.

Throughout our literary inheritance we find little reminders that we are supposed to be having fun as we do this.  That it is also what God wants of us.
One of those reminders is written above my head – it is there to remind us during every service that this is supposed to be joyful: Serve God with joy, come before God with song, it reads.

And one of the reasons that this community is so special is that it does manage to have both.  Both a strong intellectual life, and the ability to Serve God with joy – the sense of extraordinary joy that Judaism is supposed to bring – every Friday night, every Big Bang…

But, even here, we have spent the last little while being very very serious.
We have, through Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the Ten days, Yom Kippur, we have experienced the most thoughtful, the most deeply meditative and reflective that our tradition offers.
We have even self denied – we have tasted asceticism – we have afflicted our souls.

And now we need some balance.  We need what Sukkot offers, simcha yeteira, “extra rejoicing.”  Even though we are supposed to rejoice on all the festivals, we need the extra celebration of Sukkot, “And you shall rejoice before God for seven days” as a counterbalance to that which we have just done.  And we need the joy, the celebration, the dancing and singing of Simchat Torah.

If you think that this is my projection onto our tradition, it’s worth remembering that just a few days after the greatest day of mourning in our calendar, Tisha B’Av, we have one of the happiest days of the year, Tu B’Av.  Balance, and counterbalance is an established part of the wisdom of our tradition.
One of the great losses for those who experience Judaism only at the High Holy Days is that they experience only the serious, only the challenging, only the demanding… and they skip the joy.

So, had there “been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”?
Well, maybe, looked at as individual rituals, there is something a touch absurd about this two week period.  But as a snapshot, it is hardly representative.
And had Pepys attended Creechurch Lane on Yom Kippur – as so many Jews actually do – he would have also got the wrong idea about Judaism.
It is the whole that is so terribly clever – and the disorder, laughing, sporting that so disgusted Pepys – at this time of year is exactly what we need.