This week's sedra outlines the festivals that give rhythm and structure to the Jewish year. Examining them carefully, however, we see that Sukkot is unusual, unique.
One detail which had a significant influence on Jewish liturgy appears later on in the book of Deuteronomy:
“Be joyful at your Feast . . . For seven days celebrate the Feast to the Lord your G-d at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” (Dt. 16: 14-15)
Speaking of the three pilgrimage festivals - Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot - Deuteronomy speaks of 'joy'. But it does not do so equally. In the context of Pesach, it makes no reference to joy; in that of Shavuot, it speaks of it once; in Sukkot, as we see from the above quotation, it speaks of it twice. Is this significant? If so, how? (It was this double reference that gave Sukkot its alternative name in Jewish tradition: zeman simhatenu, 'the season of our joy'.)
The second strange feature appears in our sedra. Uniquely, Sukkot is associated with two mitzvoth, not one. The first:
Beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days . . . On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and willows of the brook, and rejoice before the Lord your G-d for seven days. (Lev. 23: 39-40)
This is a reference to the arba minim, the 'four kinds' - palm branch, citron, myrtle and willow leaves - taken and waved on Sukkot. The second command is quite different:
Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths, so your descendants will know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your G-d. (Lev. 23: 42-43)
This is the command to leave our house and live in the temporary dwelling that gives Sukkot its name: the festival of Tabernacles, booths, huts, an annual reminder of portable homes in which the Israelites lived during their journey through the wilderness.
No other festival has this dual symbolism. Not only are the 'four kinds' and the tabernacle different in character: they are even seemingly opposed to one another. The 'four kinds' and the rituals associated with them are about rain. They were, says Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, III: 43), the most readily available products of the land of Israel, reminders of the fertility of the land. By contrast, the command to live for seven days in booths, with only leaves for a roof, presupposes the absence of rain. If it rains on Sukkot we are exempt from the command (for as long as the rain lasts, and providing it is sufficiently strong to spoil food on the table).
The difference goes deeper. On the one hand, Sukkot is the most universalistic of all festivals. The prophet Zekhariah foresees the day when it will be celebrated by all humanity:
The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day the Lord will be one, and His name the only name . . . Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. (Zekhariah 14: 9, 16-17)
The sages interpreted the fact that seventy bulls were sacrificed in the course of the festival (Numbers 29: 12-34) to refer to the seventy nations (the traditional number of civilizations). Following the cues in Zekhariah, they said that 'On the festival [of Sukkot], the world is judged in the matter of rain' (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1: 2). Sukkot is about the universal need for rain.
At the same time, however, it is the most particularist of festivals. When we sit in the Sukkah we recall Jewish history - not just the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, but also the entire experience of exile. The Sukkah is defined as a 'temporary dwelling' (dirat arai). It is the most powerful symbol of Jewish history. No other nation could see its home not as a castle, a fortress or a triumphal arch, but as a fragile tabernacle. No other nation was born, not in its land, but in the desert. Far from being universalist, Sukkot is intensely particularistic, the festival of a people like no other, whose only protection was its faith in the sheltering wings of the Divine presence.
It is almost as if Sukkot were two festivals, not one.
It is. Although all the festivals are listed together, they in fact represent two quite different cycles. The first is the cycle of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. These tell the unique story of Jewish identity and history: the exodus (Pesach), the revelation at Mount Sinai (Shavuot), and the journey through the wilderness (Sukkot). Celebrating them, we re-enact the key moments of Jewish memory. We celebrate what it is to be a Jew.
There is, however, a second cycle - the festivals of the seventh month: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not only about Jews and Judaism. They are about G-d and humanity as a whole. The language of the prayers is different. We say: 'Instill your awe upon all Your works, and fear of You on all that You have created.' The entire liturgy is strikingly universalist. The 'Days of Awe' are about the sovereignty of G-d over all humankind. On them, we reflect on the human, not just the Jewish, condition.
The two cycles reflect the dual aspect of G-d: as creator, and as redeemer. As creator, G-d is universal. We are all in G-d's image, formed in His likeness. We share a covenant of human solidarity (the Noahide covenant). We are fellow citizens of the world G-d made and entrusted to our care. As redeemer, however, G-d is particular. Whatever His relationship to other nations (and He has a relationship with other nations: so Amos and Isaiah insist), Jews know Him through His saving acts in Israel's history: exodus, revelation and the journey to the Promised Land.
No sooner have we identified the two cycles than we see what makes Sukkot unique. It is the only festival belonging to both. It is part of the cycle of Jewish history (Pesach-Shavuot-Sukkot), and part of the sequence of the seventh month (Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur-Sukkot). Hence the double joy.
The 'four kinds' represent the universality of the festival. They symbolize nature, rain, the cycle of the seasons - things common to all humanity. The Sukkah / tabernacle represents the singular character of Jewish history, the experience of exile and homecoming, the long journey across the wilderness of time.
In a way not shared by any other festival, Sukkot celebrates the dual nature of Jewish faith: the universality of G-d and the particularity of Jewish existence. We all need rain; we are all part of nature; we are all dependent on the complex ecology of the created world. Hence the 'four kinds'. But each nation, civilization, religion is different. As Jews we are heirs to a history unlike that of any other people: small, vulnerable, suffering exile after exile, yet surviving. Hence the Sukkah.
Humanity is formed out of our commonalities and differences. As I once put it: If we were completely different, we could not communicate. If we were all the same, we would have nothing to say. Sukkot brings both together: our uniqueness as a people, and our participation in the universal fate of mankind.
Tears are the Universal Language, Help the Universal Command
Credo – The Times
Ansel Harris, who died earlier this year, was one of Anglo-Jewry’s unforgettable characters. Obstinate, single-minded, impossible to argue with and equally impossible not to admire, he had what Albert Einstein called that “almost fanatical love of justice” that went with being a Jew.
It was something he learnt from his parents, who had set up a refuge for immigrant children fleeing Nazi Germany. Throughout his adult life that memory drove him to seek out suffering and offer its victims practical help.
He became honorary treasurer of Oxfam, and in the last decade of his life devoted his energies to UK Jewish Aid and International Development, whose role is to provide medical, educational, social and financial help to people in distress, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
Through it he was instrumental in bringing humanitarian aid to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia. He set up a water filtration plant in Mozambique, a mobile ophthalmic clinic in Zimbabwe, and a student exchange for Tibetan exiles. His energy was prodigious, his moral passion inexhaustible.
Others sometimes found him hard to live with. I didn’t, because I worked on the assumption that on most things about which we disagreed, he was right. It saved a lot of argument. Ansel never tired of reminding us that as Jews we had a responsibility to work across the borders of faith and be a blessing to humanity as a whole, seeking neither recognition nor reward.
At a memorial service recently, one of the speakers was Lord Bhatia, whom he had come to know through his work for Oxfam. It was clear from the tone of his tribute that the two men shared a moral vision and had been close friends.
In the course of his remarks, Lord Bhatia told a lovely story. Ansel, he said, loved music, but only on the condition that he chose it himself. He hated background music in public places.
On one of their trips to India, he tried to get the airport staff to turn off the music coming over the public address system. He failed. He tried it again on the plane, and again he failed. Arriving at the hotel, he heard more music in the lobby and stormed up to the receptionist, insisting that it be turned off.
This time he succeeded. “I have no doubt, Ansel, that you are now in Heaven with the Lord and His choir of angels,” said Lord Bhatia, “But whatever you do, don’t ask God to turn the music off.”
What held them together, one a passionate Jew, the other a no less committed Muslim? The short answer is that they cared for something larger than their respective faith communities. They cared for humanity. When they saw disease, poverty and despair, they didn’t stop to ask who was suffering; they acted.
They knew that tears are a universal language, and help a universal command. They saw faith not as a secluded castle but as a window onto a wider world. They saw God’s image in the face of a stranger, and heard His call in the cry of a starving child.
Does faith make us great or does it make us small? On this question, much of the future of our world depends. Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together in friendship so long as we never forget those things that transcend religious difference — of which human suffering is one.
When we focus, not on ourselves, but on those who need our help, our separate journeys converge and we become joint builders of a more gracious world.