Pessach and Sukkoth, two sides of the same coin

Chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus outlines two mitzvot associated with the festival of Sukkoth. In verse 40 it says

“On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook…..”.

These are the four species of vegetation that we today know as the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow. The Rabbis taught that we hold the four species together, and wave them in all of the directions of the compass, as well as upwards and downwards. In this way, we mobilize the winds that blow from all directions to bring rain to Israel for the new season of sowing and harvest.

In Leviticus 23: 42-43 we read,

“He shall live in booths [Sukkoth] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…..”.

These sukkoth must have a roof (s’khakh) made of natural untreated materials, and through which the rain can penetrate. To carry out this mitzvah, every Jewish household is expected to spend time in a sukkah over course of the week of the festival.

One explanation behind these two mitzvot, waving the lulav and etrog, and dwelling in a sukkah, is, to bring us into a closer relationship with nature than we ordinarily and possibly experience it through the rest of the religious year.

Rabbi Greenberg, provides an interesting theological insight into Sukkoth in his book “The Jewish Way”. Greenberg contrasts Sukkoth with Pessach. As he points out, Pessach celebrates a single, intense moment of freedom in the life of the Jewish people. At the exodus from Egypt, he continues, the divine presence came into human experience. Pessach is therefore a season of miracles. At the exodus the people were required only to take the first step, and God did the rest.

Sukkoth, on the other hand, does not celebrate a moment of miracle, a moment when ordinary time ceased. On the contrary, Sukkoth calls to mind a long period of wandering, a longer period in time. I like this thought. At Sukkoth, God is, as he was back then when our people wandered through the desert, hidden in the everyday, the day-by-day experiences.

Sukkoth reminds us of 40 years during which the people of Israel had to deal with the basic requirements of an everyday existence: water, food, clothing, a roof over the head.

Rabbi Greenberg’s insight is that these two festivals, Pessach and Sukkoth, are two sides of the same coin. As human beings, we seek moments of “divine enthusiasm”, moments taking us out of time, beyond the everyday, in a more uplifted realm. Such moments deepen our spiritual appreciation for life; they give us a sense of God’s grandeur. On the other hand, we spend most of our time while we are alive journeying through uncharted territory, facing the everyday demands and needs life places upon us.

It is an act of faith on our part to believe that life’s road does indeed lead somewhere: That there is indeed a deeper meaning, and a pattern to life. I think this I a remarkable thought.

Just as Pessach and Sukkoth represent two sides of the same coin, so they fall at opposite ends of the Jewish year: Pessach on the 15th day of the first Hebrew month (Nisan), and Sukkoth on the 15th day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Our lives revolve around these two poles of the Jewish year, which represent our longing for the miraculous, on the one hand, and our everyday experience of reality, on the other.

The two mitzvot of Sukkoth focus on the basic needs of everyday life: water (represented by the waving of the four species) and shelter (represented by the sukkah). Ironically, these needs, once met, most quickly distract us from acknowledging the role of God in providing for them.

The Torah itself recognises that once we have water and food, the clothing and the “fine houses” (Deuteronomy 8:12), which we need to keep us secure and warm, we misinterpret their origins and imagine that it is “by the strength of our hands” that we achieved them.

On Pessach, when we recall how the natural world was overturned and we were freed from slavery, it is easy to acknowledge the impact of the divine on the life of our people.

Sukkoth reminds us that even in the absence of such dramatic moments of magnificent miracles, God is still at work in our lives. Remember, all these “small wonders”, whom we have just lost sight of, like the water, the food, the clothing, and the dwellings, none of which is a given, and needs to be sustained.

I would like to think that even more so, as we wander year by year through the wilderness of our lives, even at those times when our journey seems dark and most uncertain, God is there, providing for us.

Chag Sameach

Yom Kippur: A day of hope

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls [teannu et nafshoteichem]; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Adonai. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you afflict your soul [ve-innitem et nafshoteichem]; it is a law for all time. (Leviticus 16:29–31)

Yom Kippur isn’t an easy day. Not because of we are fasting. I agree, fasting is one of the duties of today, as commanded in the Torah, but fasting in itself only needs a bit of physical strength. If, God forbid, we are ill, or get sick, we are even commanded to break our fast.

Parashat Ha’azinu: A divine promise

Parashat „Ha’azinu“ consists of the last prayer Moshe says, in front of the people. In this wonderful composed prayer, he explains once again that God is perfect, and full of mercy. God is never wrong, he is true and „YaShar“, straight. For the last time, Moshe reminds his people to be honest in their dealings towards God, to remember the past, and to teach the lessons, which can be drawn from the story to the next generation.

The Haftarah, which is linked to this Shabbat, and where this Shabbat’s name is actually taken from, starts with a prophetic warning to Israel, to return to God, – la’shuv.

Both texts are here to give this Shabbat a special meaning. This period between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur is very special and unique; our relationship with God reaches a different level. From my understanding, it is intended that we get closer to God. During this period, it becomes easier to address God in reviewing the past year – What was good, what was not so good, what went wrong? We are standing in front of the Eternal, as our own lawyers in a trial, presenting our case, ourselves, to the judge.

A serious move – Rosh HaShanah 5775

Many of you know that I moved a few short weeks ago. Anyone, who has moved, knows that relocation from one place to another isn’t easy. There are so many things to consider. What needs to be put into the packing cases, what needs to be left, to be sold, given away, or maybe stored. Before we can move, we need to write lists, we plan, make arrangements, and try and get organised.

Whenever I looked around my apartment before the move, I was shocked to see how much ….. stuff had found its way onto my shelves. There a book, I once bought because I had always wanted to read it. Here, a gift from a good friend that I had never quite found the right spot for. And so many papers on my desk, papers that needed checking and sorting. There are many little keepsakes and souvenirs all over my shelves, reminders of the many wonderful moments in my life.

Ki Tavo – An eternal flame

KiTavo, our Parasha for this week starts with the words:

When you enter the land that the Eternal, Your God is giving you.

What follows are instructions to the Israelites regarding what they have to do, after they have entered the Promised Land. This is not the only time in the Torah, that some commandments are strongly linked to “the land”. Remember that all the Mitzwot, dealing with the Sabbatical Year for agriculture are commandments linked to the land.

According to the traditional interpretation of the Halachah, these Mitzwot are still bound to the land of Israel, or more precisely, only within the border of the biblical land of Israel and Judah. This means, that our friends on the progressive Jewish Kibbutz Lotan in the South of Israel are not obliged to follow the regulations of the Sabbatical Year. The Arava and Negev Desert don’t belong to ancient Israel.

Reading the bible very literally, one could argue these commandments are not relevant to us in South Africa. We are neither going to enter the land of Israel, nor are we living there already. One may even be tempted to say that even a lot of Israelis are not really observing the laws that are presented in our Torah portion.

But, I wouldn’t be raising this topic, if I agreed with this point of view. There is another way of looking at it, that – in my opinion – makes more sense. I would argue and say that Mitzwot, connected exclusively to “the land”, bear an absolute relevance for us all, even though we are not living in the land of Israel.

The laws we find in our Torah portion, and in other places as well, are loaded with ethical values that are vital to every society. These include the sharing of a tenth of our harvest or income with the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and the appreciation of the land, and our natural recourses, by keeping the idea of a sabbatical year. I truly believe that the intention of the Torah by telling us this is – as mentioned in Verse 26.18 of our parashah – to create a “Holy Nation”, a nation that is struggling for a better world in the path, God has designated for us.

Actually, I think that all these Mitzwot, which on a superficial level are connected to the land, have a broader, and deeper meaning – that of connecting us to each other and the Eternal through the ethics they represent.

Therefore, the connection of the Mitzwot with “the land” can be understood as being of great help and greater importance. The land of Israel may be seen metaphorically as an eternal flame, reminding us not to forget to thank the Eternal for what we have achieved, and that every one of us has had a moment, a time in their lives where they are brought out of a “very personal” Mitzrayim. Every one of us overcomes challenges in life. It could be leaving home, entering into a partnership, discovering one has a serious illness. The list is endless. Israel, in this sense, is a symbol of the well-being of the Jewish people because it reflects our relationship with God.

I would like to very briefly raise another point relating to the issue of “the land”. I can understand that a lot of people are troubled by the politics, and realities connected to the modern State of Israel. I, too, am very often troubled, and I would consider this to be a normal reaction. We need to be concerned, but I think our Torah portion also teaches us, that we, as Jews living outside of the land of Israel, are in a relationship with Israel. Like the other Mitzwot I referred to, Israel has a relevance for us all.

I believe, Israel reflects our eternal relationship with God. If we think, that things in the State of Israel are not going well, then our relationship with God also needs some improvements. Guided by shared values – like gender equality in public spaces, the “western wall” as a place of worship for all Jewish streams, and a human treatment of all people, irrespective of their background, – we should seek to find ways, in which we can change the current situation. Israel is too important for us as Jews to be left alone and on its own. Ignoring it, or even boycotting it, won’t change anything. After all, Israel is our Jewish homeland.

As progressive Jews, we have a responsibility for Israel in the same way as every other Jew has – whether they are living in Israel or not. In our Torah portion Moses repeats that the land of Israel is part of our heritage. Not only OUR heritage today, but the heritage of EVERY generation of Jews. Those who have gone before us, our generation today, and for the generations that will come after us. I think, it is worth taking on this responsibility.

Shabbat Shalom