SEPTEMBER 2018, Beit Polska
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
The festival of Sukkot, following on the full moon so shortly after the end of Yom Kippur and the lengthy period of repentance and meditation and teshuvah, is always a difficult one in some respects because one has just done so much praying and then comes the command ”Be happy!” ”VeSsamachta beChagecha”, ”You should rejoice and be happy in your festival.” (Deuteronomy 16:14). It is not just a case of WHAT you should do to perform a specific set of mitzvot – there is that too, of course, with the commands for building the Sukkah or using the Arba Minim, the Four Species, but of HOW one should feel while doing it. I always consider this to be one of the most difficult of Mitzvot, as it involves Feeling, not Doing.
For technical reasons, to do partly with the time required for translation into Polish and partly with my own work schedule, I am preparing this address a few days before the festival and as I write it is not yet clear just what effect the latest hurricane has had in certain Eastern states of the USA – by the time we come to this day, you may have had chance to see in the media more aerial photos of devastated cities, just as the images we saw a few years ago of New Orleans and frankly just as the images we see almost every year of buildings torn up and split apart by invisible forces – you do not SEE Wind, only its effects – and streets littered with débris and upturned cars, and boats standing stranded far inland. It seems to happen very frequently, almost as frequently as there are fires raging on the West Coast, in California, burning people’s homes and making them into homeless refugees. I am preparing this address before we have had chance to learn how congregations of our fellow Jews will have had to cope with these natural forces, how they coped with Yom Kippur and how they will cope with Sukkot. Thanks to modern technology we can learn such things very quickly, but it still takes time. So I am having to estimate or to make assumptions, in the knowledge that we will as before hear from colleagues, from our religious movements, we shall hear appeals for help and support. ”Kol Yisrael arevim zeh-lazeh”, all Jews are responsible for helping one another in times of need, and it may even be only with moral support, but nevertheless a sense of solidarity is important. I do know that citizens of some States have been warned by Federal, State and local government leaders to leave, to get into their cars and simply drive away, to lock up and abandon their homes for a while so as to save their lives….. To seek better, more substantial shelters. And many people will be living for extended periods in temporary accommodation while repairs are made, while roofs are rebuild, while uprooted trees are cleared away, while electric power is restored. As I say, the details and the statistics are unknown at the time of writing but the general picture is already clear. In a wealthy and powerful country, the wind can blow, the rain can fall – and suddenly Nature stops being something charming to look at and enjoy, but a threat to one’s very existence and to all that one has built up. (There are also storms currently in the Pacific affecting the Philippines and China, though – to put it bluntly – there are simply fewer Jews in this part of the world!)
At the same time in another part of the world, as I write these lines and perhaps even when I deliver them to you personally, further cities in the Near East, in Syria or in Yemen and elsewhere, are being reduced to concrete rubble and twisted bits of steel; buildings and the people within them are being turned into dust by all the power of modern warfare. Television cameras and even amateur mobile telephones are now used to show the same, repetitive images of ruined cities, of heaps of wreckage – the wreckage of civilisations, of individual lives, of cultures. Collections of books or of archaeological exhibits and archives and memories will be destroyed just like homes, schools, markets, hospitals, places of worship….. We will see familiar pictures of what were tall buildings with gaping holes in them, of walls without floors, or of floors exposed without walls to contain them, slabs of concrete dangling, streets piled high and impassable. We have seen these images for years now, for decades, we get used to them, inured to them….. but for those who live there, or lived there, or used to live there, or try to live there, or who have and had loved ones who lived there, or who want to go back and live there, these images mean much, much more.
And of course we as a community will celebrate Sukkot in a city which, as old photographs show, albeit it is still just within living memory, was once almost unrecognisable as a city at all, with barely two bricks left on top of each other. The blast of an explosive shell is also invisible to the naked eye – you do not see the wind, only what it does. It takes years to build a city block, minutes to destroy it, maybe even just seconds.
From all this we learn how temporary human-built buildings can be, how fragile, how provisional. The greatest castles and palaces, the largest bunkers even, everything built of stone or timber, of brick or concrete or steel or glass, of aluminium and slate and terra-cotta and marble – EVERYTHING that can be built up, can be torn down or torn apart.
Sukkot was once for the Farmers in Israel a harvest festival and the Sukkah recalled temporary shacks set up to enable the workers to overnight close to their places of work. But for the Rabbis in exile from Israel Sukkot was always the opportunity to remind ourselves that cities with thick city walls and high city gates were just as vulnerable as anything else, that for wanderers in the desert, runaway slaves, refugees, ANY form of shelter was better than none, and that even city-dwellers could and should learn the art of hospitality to fellow nomads, to invite into their shacks symbolic visitors and to share a bite to eat and something to drink, a chance to remind ourselves that essentially we are all nomads in life and that the only fixed abode we shall eventually have is in the earth, not on it.
VeSsamachta beChagecha. ”Be happy and enjoy your festival.” We actually, here, today, this year, have a lot to be happy about. The Sukkah is just temporary, for ritual or for decorative purposes. We will not have to live in it through the oncoming winter. We shall not have to meet as a community in it for the next several Shabbatot. We shall return from the festival service to homes or hotels with intact roofs and functioning water or electricity services, to intact furniture, floors we can walk on and the sort of draught where you can tell it is a draught because the rest of the wall or window is still there.
We have a lot to be happy about and we should not take that for granted. The lesson of Sukkot is: Not to forget that. That’s all. Do not forget that. And be happy.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.