Sukkot and Its Universal Message – by Rabbi Jeff Berger
As we’ve recently completed Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Judgment, we wish all of our readers to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year!
It is no accident that Sukkot occurs only a few days after the seriousness of our High Holiday season because joy is not only an important counter-balance but a culmination to this solemn period. It’s also a time to put into action any new ideas that came from our exercise in deep introspection.
The Festival of Sukkot with its outdoors emphasis, the waving of 4 Species (palm branch, etrog, myrtle and willow) and the celebration of the beginning of a new cycle of Torah reading (Simhat Torah), is called ‘the time of our happiness’ (Zeman Simhateinu)!
It also ranks high on the Jewish calendar with its ecological message.
On Sukkot for a week we leave our permanent dwelling (home) to take up residence in a temporary shelter (Sukkah booth). For many our Sukkah walls aren’t insulated and the bamboo-slat roof is so flimsy it doesn’t hold back the rain. Considering the autumnal temperatures, some might say this is a holiday that belongs to the climate of the Middle East and not to Northern Europe!
Yet metaphorically, Sukkot reminds us that the permanence of our physical world and all its gifts and acquisitions is temporary, while what we do from a non-material origin offers eternal value – the altruism, kindness and love we give others survives beyond the years we’re granted in this world.
We might also see in Sukkot the more practical plight of the homeless who, often for reasons beyond their control, have no fixed place to live. When winter starts to set in and the days get darker, a remarkable number of houses of worship open their doors as night shelters.
Here are a few organizations that are associated with Mitzvah Day. In London there is Ashford Place, the Euston Food Bank, the North Paddington Food Bank, the North Enfield Food Bank, the Sufra Food Bank, the Making Herstory Refuge Shelters, the LJS asylum seekers drop-in and the Little Village toiletries collection. Outside of London, there is Fans Supporting Foodbanks in North Liverpool, White Rose in Nottingham, Barnabus in Manchester, Manna House in Kendal and the national Tesco Fareshare food collection project.
The second element of Sukkot is the 4 Species – a representative method for blessing nature in all of its varieties; trees that bear fruit and those that don’t, vegetation that is fragrant or that is not. Here too, we can find several life lessons.
A well-known symbolic explanation of the 4 Species looks at their physical shape and links the Palm to the human spine, the Etrog to the heart, the Myrtle to the eyes and the Willow to the lips. As we wave them during the daily Hallel prayers, in effect we devote our physical and emotional being to harmonise with our Creator and the natural world, with the intention of outwardly sharing our best selves with others. (Interestingly, this kind of nature veneration is also found in the Hindu tradition.)
Midrashic writings explain that the 4 Species also convey a symbolic message about Diversity. To fulfil the requirement of waving them, they must all be held together as a set. As human beings, we have varied personalities and come from different cultural backgrounds but without recognizing and cherishing the strengths we each possess, we’re incomplete as a Society.
Some Mitzvah Day projects related to diversity include: card making for Aleh, toy collecting for Camp Simcha, crafting & upcycling with JAMI, crafting at Jewish Care, entertaining at JLiving and at the North London Hospice.
Finally, all of our efforts culminate in Simhat Torah, a celebration characterized sometimes by frenetic circle dancing with the Torah, to mark the beginning of a new reading cycle. (Some may see a similar type of dancing in the Sufi tradition.)
Whereas Sukkot has relevance to all of humankind, Simchat Torah relates only to the Jewish people. The Torah describes the service during Temple times when the priests brought a total of 70 bullock offerings on Sukkot on behalf of what were then believed to be the 70 nations of the world, but on Simchat Torah they brought only one.
So during Sukkot and Simchat Torah, we’re reminded of our duties to the well-being of humanity and of our chance to take joy in the spiritual delights of our own tradition. May you be inspired by Sukkot and its rituals of simplicity and joy to take one extra step in finding what motivates your better self!
Rabbi Jeff & the Mitzvah Day Team