The law of the lulav begins, "You shall take... on the first day..." (Lev. 23:39-40).
The Torah is talking about the first day of the Sukkot festival, which falls in the middle of the month and is never on a Sunday (though sometimes, like this year, it is a Shabbat).
From a homiletical point of view, the Torah is telling us that even though half the month is over, we can start a new thought symbolised by taking a fresh lulav in mid-month. The same idea works with Pesach, which falls on the 15th of the month of Nisan.
It has an application to Jewish history: though we are not a new people starting its journey, nor a redeemed people at the culmination of history’s course, we can always find something new to think and do.
Similarly with human beings as a whole, who even in mid-career can be invigorated with new ideas, new challenges, new opportunities and new energy.
Where do you sit in the sukkah?
The Shabbat table is not the best precedent, partly because the dining room is generally big enough to fit everyone in. Families usually have their Shabbat table places worked out. It is more or less taken for granted that everyone has a set place.
The sukkah, in comparison, is relatively small, the conditions are often cramped, and there are rules about which members of the family need to be accommodated. Family dynamics need to be re-addressed, and hardly anyone remembers where they sat last year.
A Swedish-American thinker called Milton Erikson has a remarkable idea. He says that even if you know where you sat in the past it’s good to alter things around. You get a fresh perspective. You reconsider your outlook and everybody’s place in the family.
Erikson was often consulted about human problems and had the revolutionary idea of telling people to change chairs.
Maybe that’s why Pir’kei Avot (2:4) tells us not to judge our neighbour unless we have stood in their place.
THE SANCTITY OF SILENCE
Not everything in Rav Kook’s poetic philosophy is easy to understand. But some ideas immediately grip you. An example is his phrase, "the sanctity of silence", in his Arpilei Tohar. He says that this is the highest degree of sanctity.
We might borrow the phrase and suggest that though being in company is a moment of sanctity, as is speaking to each other, the supreme sanctity is just being there and looking around physically or metaphorically and grasping the greatness of everything in Creation.
The festival of Sukkot is an example. It takes us away from the noise and bustle of ordinary civilisation into the quietness of Nature in which every tree, every flower, every plant and every branch is unspoken testimony to the existence of the Eternal.
A CULTURE OF CELEBRATION
It’s strange that a culture of celebration is intrinsic to Judaism but almost unknown in Christianity. Christians don’t have yom-tovs.
In a work called "Theology of Play", Christian Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann says it is because Christianity inclines to asceticism.
There is a highly regrettable and unhistorical Christian antagonism to the Pharisees, but the truth about the Pharisees is that they had ten words for joy and stood for the simchah shel mitzvah that gave every Jewish family the yom-tov joy that brought God into the humblest house and family.
WAS THE SUKKAH REAL?
Sukkah meal, by Bernard Picart, 1722
The sukkah was the portable shelter that was home for the Israelites during forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
ts nature was the subject of a discussion in the Talmud (Sukkah 11b).
Rabbi Chaim Druckman of Yeshivat Or Etzion explains that the two views complement each other.
On their own, the “actual” sukkot would have been too fragile to protect the people. But because of the Divinely-provided clouds of glory, the “actual” sukkot assumed almost miraculous strength and became able to withstand the elements and provide the necessary protection.
Rabbi Druckman comments, “The sukkah presents us with the true source of our existence.
“The Jewish nation has passed, over the generations, so many great and terrifying deserts, snakes, vipers and scorpions, yet the nation withstood these through the strength of the ananei hakavod, through the strength of Divine Providence. Without it we would have vanished long ago.
“Rav Kook remarks that sophisticated weapons can breach the strongest of fortresses or the thickest armoured barriers, yet they cannot breach the strong wall of the sukkah.
“Though the sukkah may seem flimsy, it affords the greatest protection, for it expresses the eternity of God’s word.”
Life in the sukkah presents the Jewish response to the fragility of human existence.
We know well that anything can go wrong in life and often does. No-one has any guarantee of safety or survival.
One can hire security guards, ride around in bullet-proof cars and live in a fortress with bars, bolts, deadlocks and back-to-base alarms. But there is no way of totally eradicating vulnerability.
So why bother going on with life?
The Jewish answer is not to give up, but to have faith in the Divine ananei kavod.
It used to be said in Israel that survival depended on two things – bittachon (security) and, pronounced in the Ashkenazi way, bittochon (faith).
The Mishnah says that whoever has not seen the festive water drawing in ancient Israel has never experienced real joy (Sukkah 5:1).
Unfortunately our generation, like all our forebears since the destruction of the Temple, have been deprived of that privilege.
But one thing we do have – the wonderment on the face of a Jewish child who enters the sukkah for the first time and is transfixed by the beauty and the aroma of the moment.
We never forget our first childhood impression of Sukkot, as we never forget our first Friday night, our first Seder, our first Chanukah, the moment we first heard the shofar, the time we were at our first Kol Nidrei. The poetry, the magic of Judaism are unbelievable.
But as the name sukkah implies – deriving from s’chach, covering – what makes a sukkah is not what is in it but what is on it.
What makes a sukkah is its head. Like a human being, a sukkah without a head has neither life nor being.
Jewish experience as a whole is both emotional – the heart – and intellectual – the head. Sometimes there is too much emphasis on the heart, and the result is a headache.
Let us consider two pictures:
1. This is the best educated Jewish generation in history.
Jews always had a feeling for education, a determination that their children had to be properly educated and preferably become doctors, lawyers or some other variety of professional. So wherever Jews live, a disproportionately high percentage are university graduates, and there are more Jewish Nobel Prize winners than our small numbers would suggest.
2. This is the most Jewishly uncultured generation in history.
SJ Goldsmith said that Anglo-Jewry was "an anti-cultural community without the saving grace of Jewish learning" – and he may have had other communities in mind too.
Which picture is correct? They both are. The problem is that so many people are highly educated in everything else but primitive in their Jewish equipment.
Their heart is certainly in the right place, and usually it is a good Jewish heart that responds properly when Jewish loyalty is required.
But they left their Jewish education behind when they were Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah, at precisely the moment when Judaism as a sophisticated, challenging adventure of the mind could have opened up before them.
The amazing thing is that those who begin searching for an adult Judaism find the experience incredibly stimulating.
So do some growing this year. Certainly, let your heart grow in pride in and deep feeling for being Jewish. But don’t lose your head.
Fortunately, the electronic age is a tremendous boon. Digital media offer so much Jewish intellectual excitement that it is worth acquiring a computer simply in order to be a better read Jew!