A few years back, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic became the first American journalist to interview Fidel Castro in a long time. At one point, Goldberg asked El Comandante if his battle with cancer had changed his opinion on the existence of God. I suppose that Goldberg was thinking of the old maxim, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and supposing that even a hardened communist might begin to think about greater spiritual things in the context of serious illness. Castro replied, “Sorry, I’m still a dialectical materialist.”
In a radio interview about his talk with Castro, Goldberg assured listeners that if Castro were doing a standup routine for a Marxist audience, that would be simply hysterical. Frankly, I’m not sure that I get it, as I must admit that I am not up on my communist jargon.
However, the story reminded me of something that I always used to tell the students in my Bar/Bat Mitzvah Workshop (back in Great Neck) when we arrived to the unit on theology: what you believe now may not apply next year, or in ten years, or in 50. Our understanding of God, our interaction with the Divine changes as we change. So you always have to stay open to new ideas, new evidence, and new theological approaches.
An ideologue like Castro may never depart his atheistic moorings. But those of us who occasionally step into a house of worship, however we feel about it, will surely develop in our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu. And that development can go many different directions, as long as we remain open.
That brings me to Sukkot. The primary goal of this festival, I am sure, is to challenge our theology, to make us revisit our understanding of and relationship with God, and I am going to give you four pieces of evidence to support this claim, four themes of Sukkot: Joy, service to God, the well, and the rituals of Sukkot.
1. Joy. Simhah. It is the most joyous festival of the year (Deut. 16:15: Vehayita akh sameah – you shall be overwhelmingly joyful), and the only one that will be celebrated after the mashiah comes, at least according to one tradition.
It is at times of great emotion that we are most open to theology, and look for deeper meanings. The cold, rational exterior of the everyday routine keeps us focused on the business of going about life: work, family, shopping, paying bills, and so forth. During these times, God seldom penetrates our consciousness.
But at times of great joy, like holidays, weddings, benei mitzvah, beritot milah, and so forth, when family gathers to celebrate, we are likely to reflect on what we are thankful for, and the source of good things. Likewise, at sad times, surrounding illness, death, or other types of loss, we tend to look to God or tradition for answers.
As such, Sukkot seems like a perfect time for spiritual reflection – gratitude for what we have, anticipation for the future, relief for having sought teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur.
2. Service to God. This was the time of the heaviest sacrifice schedule in the Temple. Far more than any other holiday, there were a total of 98 lambs and 70 bulls offered on the altar over the course of the seven days of the festival. All of this sacrifice was surely thanksgiving for the harvest, the most joyous time of the year in any agrarian society. But it also suggests that the spiritual pathways to God are especially open on this festival, that God is most receptive to us, and we to God.
As Jews, we sanctify time; I mentioned this on Yom Kippur. The spiritual pathways that were open to our ancestors at this time must still be available, because even though we do not sacrifice animals like they did, we still sanctify this festival with prayer and rituals and joyous celebration. This is a week of abundant holiness.
3. The well. At the end of the first day of Sukkot, the biggest party of the Israelite year was thrown. It was called Simhat Beit Hashoevah, the celebration of drawing water from a certain well in Jerusalem, and is identified the Mishnah, Tractate Sukkah, where it says (5:1) that anybody who has not witnessed this ceremony has never seen true simhah, true rejoicing in his whole life.
This custom is long gone, of course, perhaps because we do not know where that well is, or what the purpose of the ceremony was. But learning about it conjures up some kind of magical, mystical image of unabandoned celebration of a holy, essential act. There are synagogues and other Jewish communities who have revived a form of this party today, generally by hosting musical events.
When I was in rabbinical school at JTS, I had a philosophy class on the newer modes of spirituality, and how they differ from the traditional Western concept of “religion.” We discussed two major types of seekers today, the mountain climbers and the well-diggers. Mountain climbers look outside for spiritual nourishment; they climb up to see what they can see. Well-diggers look inside; they mine themselves for enlightenment. In our canon, Moshe was a mountain-climber; Avraham was a well-digger. If Shavuot is the festival of mountain climbers, then Sukkot is the holiday for well-diggers.
Perhaps the celebration of the well suggests something particularly deep (ha ha!) about the nature of this festival. At the same time that we receive great pleasure from the harvest, which is about material success, we are also celebrating having emerged from Yom Kippur cleansed of sin and rejuvenated, and we therefore must remember to also mine our own personal depths for the non-material elements of God’s favor.
The well ceremony is thus a kind of metaphor for our own internal wrangling with God.
4. Rituals. Sukkot today is laden with curious rituals, some of which seem to be drawn from non-Israelite customs – waving four species around, living in temporary dwellings, beating willow branches against the ground, parading around asking to be saved.
Let’s check out the Torah’s reasoning for living in sukkot during this week (Lev. 23:42-43):
בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
You shall live in sukkot (temporary structures) seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.
The commentators suggest that it is incumbent upon all of us to live in the Sukkah as much as possible, and that the Torah specifies “citizens” to make clear that it is for rich and poor alike, that nobody should feel like doing so is beneath them.
We “live” in the Sukkah to bring us back to the wilderness for just a moment. And, as we all know, the wilderness is the place for visions of God: the burning bush, receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, Jacob’s angelic dreams, Ezekiel’s chariot and valley of dry bones, and so on. The Sukkah is a place to be open to communication from God.
The commentator Rashbam says that this is precisely the time of the year, when the harvest has been gathered and we’re feeling flush, that we should vacate our homes and property to live in a simple hut. Even though most of us are not farmers, the sukkah still reminds us that it is not through our own hands that we have obtained all of our material goods.
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I have a colleague who posted a story on Ravnet (the email list for Conservative rabbis) about how he was approached after services on Rosh Hashanah by a congregant who told him that the services were not “spiritual.” The rabbi fretted over this for a while, as I would do, and then discussed the matter with his wife, as I would also do.
The rabbi’s wife said, in essence, relax. There are no spiritual services, only spiritual people. A true partnership in congregational Judaism is when the clergy opens the door, and the laity walks through. We can only meet you halfway; you must seek God as well.
And sometimes you need to shake up your surroundings a bit to, reconsider, rethink, and be inspired, to get our of your material house and into your spiritual hut. You could call this concept, somewhat ironically, “living inside the box.”
Just about everyone except Fidel Castro has the potential for theological growth. So leave your comfort zone for Sukkot. Here is a multi-pronged approach to theological openness for the coming week:
- Spend some time in a sukkah, and keep yourself open to new inspiration
- Eat there with your family and friends, or alone – and take a moment to think about the blessing of food and nourishment. Perhaps discuss what it took for the food to reach your table.
- Read in the sukkah. Take your favorite anthology of poetry or a book of Jewish short stories or a siddur.
- Meditate on the themes of joy, service to God, and the spiritual well.
- Sit alone in the sukkah and close your eyes and just “be.”
In this season of heightened spiritual energy you might get lucky and discover an open well that you had not noticed before.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
First Day of Sukkot, 5776