Thursday, October 20, 2016

SUKKOT: Four Elements of The Thanksgiving and Identity Holiday

Here we are in the fall cycle of Jewish holidays and in the midst of Sukkot (with its many names), called the Festival of Booths, Festival of Ingathering (the Jewish version of Thanksgiving), Time of our Happiness and simply Chag or Holiday. It is a time of so much joy and interaction – with each other, with G-d, with the environment and its amazing resources and within ourselves. It is a time of great food, beautiful prayer services, my version of “Jewish camping” in our temporary huts that exist right outside of our permanent homes, and spending wonderful time with so many friends and family members.

This Sukkot, as always, I am in teaching mode at various junctures. That allows and gives me the opportunity to be particularly thoughtful and intentional about the meaning of the season, as I communicate that meaning to others through classes I teach and Shiyurim or Divrei Torah I give. The number FOUR is often prevalent in so much of Jewish life so I will use this little bit of teaching to focus on FOUR messages of Sukkot that I have been thinking about this year specifically, to parallel the FOUR species, if you like.

UNITY - As we hold the Four Species together and bless them in our Sukkah, we are reminded about unity – the unity of the Jewish people and their various levels of knowledge and engagement with the community and our many Mitzvot; and hopefully on some level all people with whom we interact. Further, we consider the unity we try to find within our deepest selves as we take on our various involvements through the days, weeks and years of our lives with our eyes (symbolized by the hadas), our mouths (aravot), our hearts (etrog) and our spines/backbones (lulav).

BALANCE - We are enacting the presence of balance in our lives on so many levels as we think about the fragile nature of life with the Torah readings of the season and the recitation of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Shabbat that occurs during this Chag while we admire the strength and perseverance that is part of us as well, perhaps best exemplified by the Lulav itself, the Date Palm. According to Avinoam Danin, z’l, the very well known Israeli botanist, the Date Palm is the oldest fruit bearing tree known in human history and it’s various components were used completely as food (dates), shelter (the strong branches), protection, and for medicinal purposes as well. Further, as Danin teaches, find a date palm in the desert and you can trace its roots to water sources. It was basically a self-contained survival kit, facilitating sustenance and meaningful existence. As I held my Lulav and Etrog this year, I have a newfound appreciation for the balance of its strength as well as the heart that forms the center of our strength as compassionate beings, exemplified by the Etrog.

THANKFULNES FOR OUR ENVIRONMENT - This is a most wonderful time for us to celebrate and acknowledge the very environment that supports and nurtures us. As the fall holiday season will end next week and we return to the beginning of the cycle of Torah readings in our Jewish community, it is so fitting to note that we begin WITH our environment in the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) as we read about the first total eco-system that functioned and was dependent (and remains so) on our thoughtful interaction with the various elements in our lives that we take for granted way too often. Sukkot as Chag HaAsif, or the Ingathering Holiday is truly a time to give thanks and to think about how we intentionally live our lives.

WATCHING OUR WORDS - Hoshana Rabbah is the seventh day of Sukkot. We are taught that it is on this day that the final gate is closed and judgment is sealed from the Ten Days of Repentence that spanned from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. It is on this day that we beat the willows, that of the Four Species that symbolizes the mouth, or if you wish, the words we speak with our mouths. How interesting it is that once again we are confronted by the deed of our speech as we look inside and consider our lives and the impact we make. It is also poignant that the very next day on Shmini Atzeret, we say the Prayer for Rain, which we know is the water we need for our very sustenance and for that of all that supports us in our daily lives.

I know there is a type of exhaustion that many of us feel during the time span that begins with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. There is a type of release that comes with the final sound of the Shofar after the Neilah service. However, it is not the release that allows us to just sit and relax. Rather, it is the release that allows us a new perspective, a fresh start and an opportunity to begin anew. It is immediately at that point that we begin to prepare for Sukkot which then occupies our lives for the next twelve days or so with its pageantry and many elements. As we cook, sit with friends, shake the Lulav and Etrog, welcome in the Ushpizin (guests from our past and present), and sit surrounded by nature and eat the foods that nature has provided us, we must hold onto that thoughtfulness of the earlier season of Repentence and RETURN to ourselves and our environment in a meaningful and intentional manner. Think about what your FOUR ELEMENTS of appreciation are at this season…. And Chag Sameach to all.