Hot on the heels after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the great festivals of judgment, repentance and atonement comes the uplifting Festival of the In-gathering, Sukkot with its emphasis on harvest, abundance and the blessings of the earth. It is an extraordinary contrast, moving from the solemnity and introspection of Yom Kipur to this festival, known as z’man simchateynu – the season of our rejoicing.
The very contrast of these two festivals is strange enough. More challenging is the imagery and symbolism that accompany these two festivals. I have been following a discussion among some of my colleagues about the symbolism of the Book of Life in our liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur. “You write and seal, record and recount…You open the book of records, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being”. This prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef, more than suggests that the future course of our lives is determined by God. If we do good, if we perform mitzvot, if we live up to the terms of the covenant between God and Israel, then our destiny, as it were, is assured; but if we fail to live up to the terms of that covenant, then the harm we have done in our lives determines our fate – our deeds bear the record of our lives.
The poet’s fatalism, however, is deflated, not by his belief in the randomness of creation – in contrast to this determinism – but by the idea that only repentance, prayer and good deeds annul the severity of this judgment. This God-given freedom to choose good over evil, to engage in a life of devotion to God’s will and to the well-being of the created world lies at the heart of Jewish thought and belief. As Eliezer Berkovits, the twentieth century philosopher and theologian writes: “God cannot as a rule intervene whenever man’s use of freedom displeases him. It is true, if he did so the perpetration of evil would be rendered impossible, but so would the possibility for good also disappear.” (Reflection on the Holocaust. Ktav Publ. House, 1991. Page 171)
This freedom is the essence of our humanity. Yet even the choice of good cannot assure us of health, prosperity or well-being. The idea that repentance, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree is a difficult one in a world where no matter how many good deeds and acts of kindness are performed, the harshness of poverty, war, lack of shelter, disease, bereavement or loneliness can gate crash all too quickly to unseat the security of daily lives. One only needs to listen to those daily diaries from Syria – the young man holed up in a basement, isolated from his mother and siblings and not knowing whether the building in which he is sheltering will be bombed – to begin to understand that there is no certainty in life. We cannot know what will happen tomorrow.
So this Book of Life symbolism is hard enough for us to digest. But then comes the symbolism of Sukkot: the fragile shelter of the Sukah with its very precise and detailed laws – how high it can be (not more than 20 cubits); how low (minimum of 10 hand-breadths), how many sides it must have (3), how shaded it should be (more of its roof should be shaded than unshaded); whether it’s old or new, under a tree, one Sukah built on another Sukah (all non-valid) or spread over the frame of a two-post bed (valid) – seems odd enough. And then there are the symbols of the lulav and etrog – the palm, willow, myrtle and citrus (etrog), to be taken, bound together and waved towards all four corners of the universe and up and down.
It is in this duality between symbolism and physicality that lies the real meaning of Sukkot. Yom Kipur focus on the denial of the physical to focus on the spiritual. Right after it, Sukkot thrusts us right back into the world of our own physical existence, reminding us that the work of our hands, what we do in this world, are works of beauty. We are here for a purpose, and that purpose is to embrace and elevate the things of the world, and to do so in a way that validates and includes the many different types of creations and people in the world.
And at the end of Sukkot, we leave the sukah behind and celebrate Simchat Torah–the real letters and words of the texts of our people on Friday Oct 17, 10 am (See service schedule). Those words have a physical reality, but they become symbols as well. And through their symbolism, they guide our real lives. We thus live in a constant dialogue between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be. That is the space in which Jewish life happens. We build the sukah, we live in it, we learn in it, and then we take its message with us into a year of learning and study, a year of doing and action.