Sukkot, or Tabernacles, is the most joyous of all the festivals. We call it the ‘season of our rejoicing’. And like Pesach much of the celebration lies in the preparation.
For a week, we leave the security of our houses and live in huts or booths to remind us of the tabernacles in which the Israelites sheltered during the forty years of wandering on their way to the promised land.
For several days beforehand – beginning immediately after the Day of Atonement – Jewish families become teams of builders, putting up the fragile structure, rooﬁng it with leaves, and decorating it so that it becomes a temporary home where we eat and study and welcome guests.
There is no more potent symbol of Jewish history than the sukkah, the temporary dwelling. For that, for the greater part of four thousand years, is where Jews lived. From the time of Abraham, we have travelled towards the land of Israel. But we have been destined to live there all too briefly. Instead our story has been one of exiles and dispersions, as if wandering in the Wilderness was not the fate of Moses’ generation alone but a recurring theme of Jewish life.
In the Middle Ages alone, Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from Vienna in 1421, Cologne in 1424, Bavaria in 1442, Milan in 1489 and most traumatically from Spain in 1492. A century ago the wave of pogroms in Eastern Europe sent millions of Jews into ﬂight to the West, and these great migrations continue even today among the Jews of the former Soviet Union.
Jewish history reads like a vast continuation of the stages of the Israelites’ journey in the thirty-second chapter of the book of Numbers: ‘They travelled . . . and they encamped . . . They travelled . . . and they encamped.’ The very name ivri, or Hebrew, means one who wanders from place to place. More than most, Jews have known insecurity, whether in the land of Israel or elsewhere. Too often home turned out to be no more than a temporary dwelling, a sukkah.
Yet with its genius for the unexpected, Judaism declared Sukkot to be not a time of sadness but the ‘season of our rejoicing’. For the tabernacle in all its vulnerability symbolises faith: the faith of a people who set out long ago on a risk-laden journey across a desert of space and time with no more protection than the sheltering divine presence.
Sitting in the sukkah underneath its canopy of leaves I often think of my ancestors and their wanderings across Europe in search of safety, and I begin to understand how faith was their only home. It was fragile, chillingly exposed tothe storms of prejudice and hate. But it proved stronger than empires. Their faith survived. The Jewish people has outlived all its persecutors.
At the end of his History of the Jews Paul Johnson wrote:
The Jews were not just innovators. They were also exemplars and epitomisers of the human condition. They seemed to present all the inescapable dilemmas of man in a heightened and clariﬁed form . . . The Jews were the emblem of homeless and vulnerable humanity. But is not the whole earth no more than a temporary transit camp?
Those words go to the heart of Sukkot. To know that life is full of risk and yet to afﬁrm it, to sense the full insecurity of the human situation and yet to rejoice: this, for me, is the essence of faith. Judaism is no comforting illusion that all is well in this dark world. It is instead the courage to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty and to rejoice even in the transitory shelter of the tabernacle, the Jewish symbol of home.
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Twenty years ago I built my ﬁrst sukkah. It was almost a catastrophe. It happened like this.
My wife and I were newly married and had just settled in to our new home. One morning, leaving the synagogue, a friend said, ‘I’m just off to the local timber yard to buy wood to build a sukkah. Would you like to come with me?’ Delightedly, I said yes. We didn’t have a car, and I had been wondering how to buy and transport the materials to make a hut. The offer was providential. We went back to his home to get the list of things he required.
The contrast between us, though, could not have been greater. The friend – who was later to become one of Anglo-Jewry’s great rabbis – was superbly organised. He had drawn up architectural plans for his temporary dwelling. It was to be a stand-alone structure with windows and a door, and it was going to require considerable skill in carpentry. He had made a long and precise list of the materials he needed, and was ready to begin.
I was shame-faced. I had no idea how to make anything, let alone a sukkah. In school, I had always come bottom of the class in woodworking, and when it came to practicalities, changing a light-bulb was the limit of my ability. Humbled, I followed him into the car hoping that inspiration would come.
In the timber yard, he rattled off his list of requirements and ended up with an impressive pile of beams and planks and hinges and screws. I settled for an impromptu list of a few sheets of hardboard, some wooden supports and a bag of nails. We went off to our respective homes and began hammering away.
Before the festival began we visited each other to see the results of our efforts. His was a thing of beauty, a summer house in which anyone could have faced wandering in the wilderness with equanimity. Ours was modest by any standards. I had joined the hardboard to the beams to make three square walls, nailed them to one another, and rested them against the back wall of the house. It looked like a large packing case. There was a hole for a door.
The festival arrived, and as luck would have it, there was a storm on the second night. The wind howled and blew itself into a gale. In the synagogue the next morning my friend sat dejected. His sukkah had blown down. ‘What’, he asked, ‘happened to yours?’
‘It’s still standing’, I said. He could hardly believe it. His elaborate tabernacle had been overturned while my makeshift hut survived.
‘I must come round and see it’, he said. ‘I don’t understand how any sukkah could have stayed standing after that storm.’ So we went to my home together to investigate the mystery. We soon found the answer.
Unlike his, our sukkah did not stand alone. It had three walls, and for the fourth we had rested it against the house. To stop it collapsing, I had joined one corner to the wall of the house with a single nail, and it was that nail which had held ﬁrm during the gale.
My friend laughed and said: ‘Now I understand the meaning of Sukkot. You can plan and construct the most sophisticated building, but if it is not joined to something stable, one day the winds will come and blow it down. Alternatively, you can make an improvised shelter which looks frail and probably is. But if it is joined even at only one point to something immovable, it will hold fast in the worst storm.’
‘That nail in the corner’, he said, looking at it with a smile I have never forgotten, ‘is faith.’
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No other festival brings us so closely into contact with nature as does Sukkot. It is not merely living in the tabernacle that exposes us to the sun, the wind and the rain. It is aIso the other ritual of Sukkot, the ‘four kinds‘. The Torah commands us to ‘take the fruit of the goodly tree. (the etrog or citron), branches of palm trees (the Iulav), boughs of leafy trees (hadassim) and willows of the brook (aravot), and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days’ (Leviticus 23:40). These fruits of nature form a central part of the synagogue service. We hold and wave them during Hallel, the psalms of praise, and proceed around the synagogue holding them and chanting the special prayers called Hoshanot, hosannas, with their refrain, ‘Help us, please, O Lord’.
Judaism has a complicated relationship with nature. While other ancient peoples identiﬁed gods with the forces of nature, the Hebrew Bible spoke of the one God who stood above nature, bringing it into being and establishing its laws and boundaries.
It was a huge revolution of thought. God was not in but above; not immanent but transcendent. Ultimate reality was not to be found in the contending elements of the natural world. Instead it lay in something beyond, in the Creator, Ruler and Judge of all things. One creation alone – humanity – was destined to experience the tension between the natural and supernatural. We were and are, as the Bible puts it, a mixture of dust of the earth and the breath of God (Genesis 2:7).
It took an outsider and one who was deeply unsympathetic to Judaism to see what this entailed. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of Jews that ‘they made of themselves an antithesis to natural conditions – they inverted religion, religious worship, morality, history, psychology, one after the other in an irreparable way into the contradiction of their natural values.’
He added: ‘For precisely this reason the Jews are the most fateful nation in world history.’ He was correct, for Judaism represents the polar opposite of what he believed in: justice as against power, right instead of might, reverence rather than domination, compassion not control. The state of nature is a war of all against all. It is not where we ﬁnd God or grace. In nature the weak are preyed on by the strong. In the Torah the strong have responsibilities to the weak.
The ethics of Nietzsche and the Hebrew Bible are stark alternatives, and much of human civilisation was and continues to be the story of the conﬂict between them.
So it is no accident that Sukkot, the festival of nature, is built around the idea of rain. The ‘four kinds’ are plants which need rain to grow. In Temple times Sukkot was marked by an elaborate ‘water drawing’ ceremony, for at this time of the year, according to rabbinic teaching, ‘the rainfall of the world is judged’.
And in a remarkable speech at the end of his life, Moses explains to the Israelites why rain will be important to them in the years to come. Until now he has spoken of the promised land as a ‘land ﬂowing with milk and honey’. Now, for the ﬁrst time, he explains that its fertility is not so simple. It depends not on rivers but on rain:
The land you are about to enter arid possess is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God looks after; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).
The Nile delta was naturally fertile. Israel was not. In the book of Genesis we read repeatedly of how the patriarchs had to leave because of famine and drought. Even today, water is Israel’s scarcest resource. In a land of rivers, fertility comes from the ground. In a land like Israel, fertility comes from the sky in the form of rain. Nothing in such a land is predictable, nothing can be taken for granted. Instead your eyes turn towards heaven.
The promised land turned out to be, not a place of natural security, but one whose inhabitants would be constantly aware of their vulnerability to forces beyond their control. Daily survival would demand a leap of trust.
It still does. Climatically and militarily, Israel has always been peculiarly exposed: a dry land that depends on rain, a small country surrounded by great empires; never a fortress, always a sukkah. If nature prevailed, Israel would not survive. Perhaps that is why faith is engraved on our souls.
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With a ﬁnal and glorious touch of paradox, custom ordained that in the middle of this ‘season of our rejoicing’ we should read Ecclesiastes, on the face of it the most gloomy and unexpected book in the entire Bible. Its author is the man who has had and done everything. He has read books, studied the accumulated wisdom of mankind, built palaces and planted pleasure gardens, acquired wealth and all its trappings and ‘denied myself nothing that my eyes desired’.
Now, like all true hedonists, he has grown weary with life. ‘Meaningless, meaningless’, he says repeatedly, ‘Everything is meaningless.’
The Talmud records the great debate that took place before Ecclesiastes was admitted into the biblical canon as a holy book. Understandably so, for the world according to Ecclesiastes is not what we expect from a man of faith. Wisdom, he says, only begets sorrow. Wealth creates anxiety. Politics is an arena of corruption. All striving under the sun ends in disillusion.
One thing alone is certain, and that is death: ‘Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both; as one dies, so dies the other, for both have the same breath. Man has no advantage over the animals for everything is meaningless.’ If it is strange that so bleak a testimony should have been included in the Bible, it seems doubly ironic that it should have been chosen as a reading on the festival of joy.
But I sense in Ecclesiastes a surprising afﬁrmation. It is a meditation about mortality, one of the most poignant ever written. The word Ecclesiastes uses to describe the human condition is hevel, usually translated as ‘meaningless’ or ‘futile’ or ‘vain’. But it means something else: a breath.
The words the Hebrew Bible uses to describe the spirit or soul – words like nefesh, ruach and neshamah – are not abstract nouns. They are all terms which refer, each with its own nuance, to the act of breathing. The word hevel signiﬁes the fragility of life, as if to say that the entire horizon of our experience is bounded by a mere breath. That insubstantial puff of air is all that separates us from death. Hevel is the almost-nothing which is life itself.
Whenever I read it in Ecclesiastes I think of King Lear’s lament as he holds the dead Cordelia in his arms: ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?’
Ecclesiastes is a song of life – life in and of itself, frail, transitory, vulnerable, but all there is. No one saw more clearly than its author how we waste our time in the vain pursuit of immortality, as if by accumulating wealth or power we could cheat death of its ﬁnal victory.
Ecclesiastes has taken all those routes and seen where they end. From his many journeys its author has arrived at a deeply religious conclusion. God has given us one thing – life – and too many of our human strivings lead away from it. Life is the breath of God that transforms the handful of dust, and we serve God by celebrating it and not the counterfeit substitutes of human devising.
‘I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That every man may eat and drink and ﬁnd satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God’ (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).
Sukkot is a complex set of variations on the theme of life: life stripped of all illusions of security. It tells us that home, like immortality, is in how we live, not where or for how long. It is the festival of a people who have known more starkly than any other that the canopy of faith is the only shelter we have.
And it is no small testimony that we can gather beneath its shade, and sing.