Naturally relevant

Naturally relevant

Sukkot reflect their owner’s tastes and imaginations through the decoration process.

Of all the “antiquated” customs in Judaism, the ones related to Sukkot probably are the most embarrassing for modern Jews.

Imagine, goes the reasoning, having to participate in such “ludicrous rituals” as waving palm branches decorated with willows and myrtle, and connected, no less, to the world’s most expensive “lemon,” the citron. Leviticus 23:40 states, “And you shall take on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” Yet, say the naysayers, not only does the way this law is observed smack of some pagan tree-hugging, but the Torah probably never meant for its words to be taken in this way.

They point to Nechemiah 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 cold night in early autumn, eating elegant dinners in shabbily constructed shelters with insufficient space and uncomfortable chairs, dead leaves dropping into the soup and bees circling ominously nearby.

More to the point, in this Golden Age of Deconstruction, the whole premise of the festival is “a pious fraud.” After all, the Israelites never dwelt in booths, but in tents – and they certainly did not live in the prefabricated fiberglass sukkot so favored today. Also, the “evidence” is as clear as the night sky above the sukkah that (a) this festival came very late, (b) its roots are to be found in pagan agricultural ritual, and (c) its Exodus connection was forced.

In talmudic times, the debate raged between two prominent Tannaim (Land of Israel rabbis of the mishnaic period), Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva.

Their debate is found in a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkot regarding the validity of sukkah coverings. At issue was a “general rule” cited by a mishnah on 11a: The sukkah covering must be something that grew in the ground and that remains in its natural state.

A gemara on 11b tells us that this is correct “according to him who says that [the booths referred to in the Torah were] clouds of glory [this is Rabbi Eliezer’s view], but according to him who says [the Israelites] made real booths for themselves [meaning Rabbi Akiva], what is there to say [by way of explanation]? For we were taught: ‘For I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths.'” These [booths actually] were clouds of glory, according to Rabbi Eliezer. But Rabbi Akiva says, “They made for themselves real booths.”

Once again, the Book of Nechemiah is cited. Here is all of what 8:14-17 has to say:

“And they found written in the Torah, which the Lord had commanded by the hand of Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim and publish in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go out to the mountain, 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. So the people went out, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the House of God, and in the open space of the Water Gate, and in the open space of the Gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of those who had returned from [the Babylonian] captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua, son of Nun, to that day the people of Israel had not done so.”

If the laws of Sukkot went unobserved since the “days of Joshua,” meaning for at least 600 years or more, they probably did not exist at all until Nechemiah and Ezra, Nechemiah’s colleague and the religious leader of Israel at that time.

Aside from the Torah, whose authorship is suspect as far as people making such arguments are concerned (many credit Ezra with seaming it together from strands of documents reflecting varying Israelite traditions), there is almost nothing in the rest of the Bible to confirm the existence of Sukkot. 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 Livonah. 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 because the Torah refers to Sukkot as a “feast to the Lord” that this scene in Judges is considered to be a version of it.)

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 the question of the origins of Sukkot or even whether the Torah wants us to shake our lulavim or use them to build our sukkot (and never mind that would mean having to use glorified lemons as building materials, which would make for a pretty mess; the Torah, after all, includes the citron in this alleged “construction list”). 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 this way.

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 (yes, seven; Sh’mini Atzeret is a separate festival tacked on to the end of Sukkot) 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 they can sit on a beach and still answer memos, write reports and participate in business conferences. There is no escape from the workday world, and technology, rather than simplifying our lives, only complicates 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 and 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. (That technology has compromised even this — with canvas and fiberglass booths, and bamboo mats replacing ferns and leafy branches as covering – only demonstrates how sorely we need this message of Sukkot.)

There is nothing antiquated or embarrassing about Sukkot. There is nothing fraudulent about it, either. For example, the prophets make clear over and again that the Israelites time and again abandoned the Torah in many ways since the days of Joshua. That they abandoned Sukkot, as well, does not prove that Sukkot did not exist. That Sukkot may have been observed around the cultic shrine at Shiloh, but not in other parts of the Land of Israel, 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.

In fact, there is much that is quite modern and appealing about it, 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.