The joy of the Succah

The distribution of Jewish festivals around the year is scarcely an example of equality and balance. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of Tishrei, the fast of Yom Kippur follows on the tenth, and the eight days of Succot begin on the fifteenth. There’s hardly time to breath, let alone cook.

The tradition is to start building the succah, a small booth or hut, straight after the fast. I love this! We take our contemplations in our heart, a hammer and scissors in our hands, and turn our inner resolutions into practical actions.

For a succah is special; it can be as small as ten handbreadths high, or as tall as twenty cubits, so small just one person can sit in it, or big enough for a hundred. The roof must be of leaves and branches and the walls can be constructed out of virtually anything. But whatever the case, a succah must be built with affectionate respect because it’s a holy space, and these are some of the reasons why.

A succah is a place of humility. As the Mishnah says, a house is keva, permanent, but a succah is ara’i, temporary, like life itself, reminding us of the passing of our days, a thought set deeply in our hearts in these chastening times.

A succah is a space of grace. The earliest sources speak of noi succah, the beauty of the succah. They tell of decorating it with corn and fruits, flasks of wine, sacks of flour and jars of oil. For Succot is a harvest celebration and the succah is a place of thankfulness for the produce of the year. (Like many Jewish gardeners, we grow for the Succah as much as for the pot.)

A succah is a place of joy, built to mark the happiest of the festivals, the chag par excellence, as the Mishnah tells: Jerusalem was lit with lamps all night; the rabbis and the people danced all night. Making the succah is itself a joy too; it’s the paramount example of simchah shel mitzvah, the happiness to be found in following God’s commandments.

A succah is a space of connection between humankind and nature. We recognise our indebtedness and dependence, our need for the gifts of the soil. It teaches us the most urgent of contemporary lessons, to respect and reverence God’s earth.

A succah is a place of welcome. One brings guests to eat there, spiritual and temporal, summoning one’s ancestors, starting with Sarah and Abraham. But they refuse to come unless one invites friends and neighbours as well. For the succah reminds us to offer shelter, especially to refugees, as the Torah says, ‘For I [God] made the Children of Israel dwell in Succahs when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,’ and as it says also, ‘For you know the soul of the stranger.’

A succah is a space of refuge, as it says in the Psalms, ‘You hide me in Your Succah on the day of evil.’ Impermanent, easily blown away by a strong wind, it’s scarcely a castle or fortress. But it offers a deeper protection, foretelling a world in which everyone will be able to dwell safely ‘under their vine and fig tree.’

For a succah represents a tranquillity, succat shalom, the canopy of God’s peace, towards which the whole world should aspire. The mystics call the succah Tsila Di’Mehemanuta, the shade of the Faithful One, for it represents God’s protection, so badly needed by so many until the dawn of that better, future era of universal harmony.

So build with joy. If you have the opportunity, do make, or share in making, your own succah. If not, please help creating that most important of all succahs, a world where humanity, nature and God are all at peace with each other, – a task which needs the co-operation of us all

 

As Yom Kippur Approaches

I write with that trepidation in the heart which I always feel as Yom Kippur approaches, this year maybe more than ever. We stand before God, the world, our community, the people we love and our own soul.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, later known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, asked the question: Since all through the year we pray for forgiveness three times a day in every service, what’s different about this season? He answered that in the midst of the ceaseless daily grind we can just about manage to apologise for particular wrongs we’ve done, harsh words, thoughtless actions. But during the Days of Awe we take time to reflect on the whole of our life, the arc of our days and their purpose, who we are, through to our core being, down to our hidden-most heart and conscience where we encounter the living God.

What sustenance do we have for that inner journey?

What can we take? I’ve been to the cemetery too often during the past months. I walk between the rows and realise I’m among friends. I talk to some of them, tell them I still love them. I believe they say back to me, ‘Keep living. Try to do what’s right. Be kind. Until you join us.’ No other festival than Yom Kippur says so clearly ‘your days pass like a shadow.’ But it also says: life is magnificent, precious and tender, an immeasurable privilege. Cherish it. So we take with us before God the love of both the living and the dead.

What can we do?

Judaism teaches that every action is important. Maimonides asks us to imagine that not only our whole life but the entire world is always balanced on the sharp fulcrum between worthy and unworthy, kind and cruel, good and bad. Our next deed will determine which way we and our destiny tip. Everything matters. Therefore we must keep faith that we can make a difference, enable one family to be less hungry, give one person a roof, heal or comfort one person in body or spirit. ‘Never despair, never give up,’ taught Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (who himself battled with despair). We take with us on our journey our unremitting determination to do good.
Before whom are we accountable?

The obvious answer is ‘God’. But where do I find that God? I overheard a good-humoured exchange on zoom yesterday. ‘Move back a little,’ one participant said to another, ‘You’re too near your screen for me to see you.’ I’d sometimes thought the Torah taught that God was invisible because God was so far away. But perhaps it’s because God is so near that we don’t see.

God is present in our conscience whenever we hear truth, and in our heart whenever we feel moved and touched. God is in every person; God’s breath is the life-force within us all. God’s vitality is in the birds, and in the trees which sway to God’s song, most audibly so at night when the noisier world is silent.

What reply might we receive when we bring our life and soul before God? Without words God tells us: know my presence; listen to me; hurt no one and nothing. Love, cherish and nurture my world.

What do we say in response? The Torah suggests just one word: ‘Hinneni, I am here,’ which Rashi explains as an expression of readiness and humility.

For the fate of the world is in the balance and we have agency. The purpose of our life is to serve, care, heal, and endeavour with whatever capacities and time we’ve been gifted, to do right and good.

20 years since 9/11

I knew that tomorrow would be 9/11, twenty years since the terror attack against America and the horrendous destruction of the twin towers. I knew it in my head. But seeing footage; listening to the voices of people who were there at the time, men, women, wives who took that last call from their husbands; watching the firemen; listening to them speak both then and now two decades later, – that brings 9/11 home at a very different depth. I remember the shock at the time; even three thousand miles away it felt as if the pavement was shaking. The shock remains even now.

Two years ago, in that age when one still travelled easily, Nicky and I visited the memorial at ground zero. What can one say? It’s heart-rending.

For some there has been healing. For others, like the woman filmed as she stared out to sea and said she was still mourning the man she loved most in all the world, the sorrow is scarcely diminished.

Suffering begets compassion. But it often also leads to more suffering, as so many desperate to escape Afghanistan know only too well.

I am sure I can say on behalf of my community that our hearts go out to everyone to whom 9/11 has brought, and still brings, grief and pain.

Tomorrow is also significant in the Jewish year. It’s Shabbat Shuvah, which mediates between the New Year and the Day of Atonement. Teshuvah is usually translated as ‘repentance’. Though accurate, this has, for me at least, a limited resonance, as if teshuvah were always about sin. Teshuvah is more comprehensive than that: it’s a rethinking of how we are in the world; it’s a questioning, a re-evaluation, of what matters.

During the shivah for my father – I can’t believe it’s fourteen years since he died – my teacher Rabbi Magonet came up to me after the prayers as I sat on the traditional low chair and said very quietly, ‘This is about teshuvah.’

At first I was puzzled: was he suggesting I’d done wrong? Then I understood that what he meant was something deeper: This is about what truly matters, why we’re here, what it’s all for.

The questions aren’t complicated. On the contrary, it’s the simplicity which makes them so searching: What am I doing with my life? How am I using the limited time I have here on this earth?

The answers aren’t complex either. The heart doesn’t always need sophisticated terminology: It has love at its core, and sorrow for all the hurt that has so wrongly come to exist in the world. It wants to heal, as a mother longs to protect her child. As the rabbis said: Lev mevin – the heart understands.

The heart is such a small and vulnerable organ to set against all the violence, injustice and pain in the world, planes flown with incomprehensible brutality into towers full of people, bombs, the injuries which cruelty and illness inflict every ordinary day.

Or is it? It has remarkable resilience. It often responds to the worst life can do with the best that it can offer in return. It has depth upon depth of strength. When, all but exhausted, it feels it has no resources left, it finds replenishment through the companionship of friends, in the kindness of others, in wonder, even within the smallest of things, and through that spirit which flows subliminally and invisibly and which communicates without words: I am with you; I am life.

If we can return to those depths, we will know what we have to do with our days and our years.

 

A Prayer for the World on the Jewish New Year

God,
The world has so much beauty, such wonder in a moment,
Yet so much suffering – body pain, heartache, mind ache,
And fear – as if the future might collapse like a rotten floor.

We call on you in these bewildering years
Not as a remote God, not as distant other,
For you inhabit everything; the life of all creation is your breath,
The songs of wrens and owls, and humans also, is, all of it, your music.

We need to know your presence, feel you here in consciousness and conscience,
God, closer to us ‘than our own body and our soul.’ (Yehudah HaLevi)
We have to be attentive to each other.
Speak to us from inside our mind and heart
So that our actions become the articulation of your will.

You are near to us in all with whom we ever shared the bonds of care.
What is a heart but chambers full of people,
From whom our very thought is inextricable, even after death?
Speak to us through them.

God, who taught us always to listen to the stranger,
You, who have become their brother and sister refugee
In search of shelter and compassion here on earth,
Make us hear you in their weary hope, and hopelessness.

God, who calls out from all existence,
In the brave compulsion which makes the small birds overfly the oceans,
In the soil itself, where mineral become energy in the life-force of
and turns back again to matter in the falling of the leaves,
God for whom

There / is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
So small that your workmanship
is not revealed (RS Thomas: Alive)

Make us know you in the rivers and the trees.

Waken our heart, summon our mind, alarm our conscience
With all the powers of wonder, tenderness, compassion, even tears,
So that love for you and your creation
Ignites our fervour and guides our plans
To serve you here on earth in all we do.

Against despair: everything matters!

In our house, the BBC’s general knowledge quiz University Challenge is a family must-do. We’ve an unwritten rule that if not everyone can make it when it’s actually shown, we wait until we can watch it together on i-Player. I wouldn’t deny that there’s a bit of a competitive edge.

This week, one of the questions was: ‘What words complete this line from a 20th century poem: O what made fatuous sunbeams toil…

It’s from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’ and the answer is

To break earth’s sleep at all.

I quoted this bleak World War One poem on Rosh Hashanah many years ago, the day Judaism celebrates the birthday of the world, because it puts the issue bluntly: since humanity is so destructive and life so cruel, is there any point in it at all?

The question can scarcely be considered new. The Talmud wryly records that for three-and-a-half years the rabbis debated whether or not it was better that humans were created. I’ll return to their conclusion later.

Although I have bleak days and know frightening hours of sinking down and down into inner spaces of no hope, I’m lucky to have been endowed with a tenacious, re-assertive love of life. But yesterday I listened to a transatlantic colleague relating some of the feelings of despair which she’s received: climate crisis, racism, Afghanistan, refugees, global terror, food insecurity, pandemic, floods, fires. People are in bleak places, she said; it’s a litany of fear and anguish and we’re not entitled to put our hands over our ears.

I believe the Jewish – and the universally human – response, the reaction which life itself impels, is to live all the more deeply and determinedly for the good. We shall fight back. But not, hopefully, with the materiel of war. Rather we respond with an armamentarium more vulnerable, yet, over the long course of time, more enduring than the accoutrements of mere power: we answer back against life’s cruelties with passion for justice and compassion for suffering; with insight, with courage and with the wisdom of endurance taught by faith and principle; with excitement about the world, with a heart open to beauty, with a spirit which, though often close to exhaustion, is replenished once again by wonder; with care for even the littlest things of life and, when we can, with gratitude and appreciation.

This is all summed up for me, in ways I can’t fully explain, through the memory of a brief scene in a hut in the Hula Valley years ago. A tall, strong man took into his hands with consummate skill a tiny bird weighing scarcely an ounce and carefully put a ring round its leg ‘So that we can understand it better and protect the environment it needs.’ He then gave it to my daughter to release.

To ‘What can we do?’ and ‘What difference can we make?’ the answer can only be: ‘Everything, every kindness, matters.’ This is the strength bestowed on us with which to combat the errors, destructiveness, folly and anger of our own species, and the random, unjust cruelties of life itself.

So, to what conclusion did the rabbis arrive after all their lengthy discussions?

Since humans have already been created, let them search their deeds.

In other words, ‘Should God have made us in the first place?’ is not the right question. Since we’re already here, what matters is what we do with our lives.

Therefore on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation, the issue is: How can I cherish life? What can I contribute? In the classic rabbinic phrase, ‘How can I be a partner with God in protecting and honouring creation?’

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