Succot is a first Jewish memory; my father was a wonderful Succah maker. My family have inherited his booth-building passion.
If Yom Kippur takes us up to heaven, Succot brings us down to earth. If Yom Kippur leads us to the Holy of Holies of the spirit, Succot reconnects us with the soil.
Long before the building of huts with sheaves and leaves and branches became associated with our ancestors’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Succot was an ancient harvest festival.
‘Festival’ may not be the right word; succot, booths or shelters, were a farming necessity in lands where the sun beat relentlessly onto the fields. Thus, the first mention of a succah in the Bible has nothing to do with what we now call Tabernacles; it refers to the shelters Jacob built to allow his cattle to rest in the shade.
It is just this earthiness which makes me love and respect the festival.
Succot is a celebration of our bond with the earth, a festival of gratitude. To ensure we experience it personally, Nicky and I have long chosen seeds, tended the young plants, watched them grow and, if they thrived, ensured we left the last pickings of beans and courgettes, kohlrabi and pumpkins, for the Succah. Last year we even had just one home-grown watermelon (the magic size of a tennis ball) to share among our 27 guests in miniature slices.
We were only following ancient custom: the Talmud refers to hanging sheaves of corn, flasks of wine and plums (or their equivalent) in the festival booth. These basic foodstuffs were eloquent with a directness our supermarket generation has half-forgotten: ‘Thank you for the gifts of the soil. Without the rain, the insects, and the right weather we could not live’.
For, as the festival prayers make clear, we are utterly dependent. The two-thousand-year-old chants were not written in remote academies. They were composed by farmer-poets who knew the land, understood in the stomach the meaning of flood and drought: ‘Save man and beast, restore the soil, protect the trees which shelter us from desolation, O God who holds the world suspended over the void’. (I shared this text at the Succah in Trafalgar Square last night.)
This awareness of dependence underlines the bond not just between humans and nature, but also between ourselves, as families, communities and faiths.
‘Hide me in your Succah during evil days’, goes the Psalm. It sounds like a bad prayer. What could be a worse place to hide than a hut of sticks and branches? But that’s the point. True safety in any society is not when we need bunkers, but when we can dwell together, outside, protected only by the thin walls of makeshift celebratory huts because we understand that we will all only survive if we recognise together the shared gifts of this earth.
That is precisely what isn’t happening today, when only the strong doors of the synagogue in Halle kept the attacker out, and when he vented his rage on unprotected passers-by.
If I had to choose, I might say that our world needs the teachings of Succot even more urgently than those of Yom Kippur.