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Naturally relevant

Of all the “antiquated” customs in Judaism, the ones related to Sukkot may be among the most embarrassing for modern Jews.

Imagine being dressed in a business suit and waving palm branches decorated with willows and myrtle, and pairing them together, no less, to the world’s most expensive “lemon,” the etrog (or citron). Not only does this smack of pagan tree-hugging rituals, say the naysayers, but the Torah probably never meant for the words of Leviticus 23:40 to be taken in this way.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day They point to Nehemiah 8:15: “Go out to the mountain,” the people are told, “and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written [in the Torah].” Obviously, the argument goes, the so-called four species were meant as the construction material for the booths.

That, of course, brings up the whole “booths” thing, especially sitting outside on a cool night in mid- to late October, as we will be doing this year. There we are, eating elegant dinners in shabbily constructed shelters with insufficient space and uncomfortable chairs, as leaves drop into the soup and all manner of flying creatures go buzzing about.

In truth, they say, the whole premise of the festival is a fraud. The Israelites never dwelt in booths, but in tents. And the “evidence” is as clear as the night sky above the sukkah that this festival came very late. Its roots are to be found in pagan agricultural ritual, and its Exodus connection was forced.

Once again, Nehemiah is cited, specifically 8:17, which clearly states that Sukkot went unobserved “since the days of Joshua, son of Nun.” If Sukkot went unobserved for at least 600 years, it probably was never observed before it was invented in Nehemiah’s day.

Aside from the Torah, whose authorship is suspect as far as people making such arguments are concerned – many credit Nehemiah’s contemporary, Ezra, with seaming it together from strands of documents reflecting varying Israelite traditions – there is almost nothing in the rest of the Tanach to confirm Sukkot’s existence.

In Judges 21:19-21, for example, there would even be an indication that, at best, Sukkot was nothing more than a local agricultural feast, probably related to the grape harvest, in which the highlight was young women dancing. “And they said, Behold, there is a feast of the Lord in Shiloh yearly in a place which is on the north side of Beit El, on the east side of the highway that ascends from Beit El to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah. Therefore, they commanded the sons of Benjamin, saying, Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, and see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances….”

It is only because the Torah refers to Sukkot as a “feast to the Lord” that this scene in Judges is connected to Sukkot.

How can we cling to such absurdities, the argument goes, and still call ourselves modern?

That is the wrong question. How can we not cling to them is far more appropriate.

Forget Sukkot’s origins or even whether the Torah wants us to shake our lulavim or build our sukkot with them. It is just this kind of minutiae that distorts the Torah’s purpose. In this case, literally, we cannot see the forest for the trees if we get bogged down in such irrelevancy. Sukkot is important for its meaning, not its origin.

Sukkot does not belong to the ancient world, just as Shabbat does not. Rather, the seven days of Sukkot may be the most important seven days on the Jewish calendar precisely because of its rituals, as these have come down to us.

Sukkot, above all else, is about the natural order of the world and the Creator Whose word caused it all to come into being.

We live in an age when people get their e-mail streaming into devices nestled in their coat pockets and where one can sit on a beach and still answer memos, write reports, and participate in face-to-face business conferences halfway around the world. Rather than simplifying our lives, technology has only complicated them further.

We are so far removed from the real world that it is only half in jest that my late wife once suggested changing “who brings forth the bread from the earth” to “who brings forth the bread from the bread machine.”

Bread comes from the earth, not a machine – but only if we understand the process by which seeds of wheat become slices of pumpernickel.

There is a world out there that goes underappreciated and undervalued. Sukkot, like Shabbat, forces us to recognize that world and how much we still need it. This festival forces us to consider nature as part of our very being; indeed, as part of the essence of our being.

Shabbat is probably the most environmentally protective day there is. It demands that we forego technology and smell the roses. Sukkot brings that message home for an entire week. It also adds layers to it by interconnecting species and then putting us in the midst of once-living things and insisting that we dwell therein, as part of it all. (Alas, technology has compromised even this – with canvas and fiberglass booths, and bamboo mats replacing ferns and leafy branches as covering. This only demonstrates how sorely needed is this message of Sukkot.)

There is nothing antiquated or embarrassing about Sukkot. There is nothing fraudulent about it, either. As the prophets make clear over and again, the Israelites abandoned the Torah in many ways in the days and years and centuries after Joshua. That they abandoned Sukkot, therefore, does not prove that Sukkot did not exist.

And what if Sukkot was only observed around the cultic shrine at Shiloh, but not in other parts of the Land of Israel, as some have claimed? If true, this may actually be an affirmation that the festival is Mosaic in origin. A place such as Shiloh was certain to have attracted a more observant citizenry, loath to abandon God’s law in any of its aspects.

There is much that is quite modern and appealing about Sukkot, just as there is much that is modern and appealing about Torah law in general. We just need to open our eyes and our minds a bit wider, and take the blinders off, to see the truths that are still to be found there.

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