If Yom Kippur was a day of heaven in heaven, then preparing for Succot has been like heaven on earth (only a bit more rushed). ‘No eating, no drinking’, these are not only part of the laws of Yom Kippur, but also how the Talmudic sage known as Rav describes his image of heaven, ‘No jealousy, no envy, just basking in the presence of God’. Surrounded by so many people to whom I feel close, with beautiful music and prayers filled with the spirits of our people, parts of Yom Kippur felt just like that. Thank you!
It’s therefore wonderful to come down to earth with a bang, – the first nail in the Succah. ‘Those who are careful in keeping the commandments begin to build their Succah at once after the conclusion of Yom Kippur’, says the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish Law. It’s struck me more than once – as I strike the nails at 11.00pm and try to ensure that the first beams of the heavy structure are firmly enough in place to make it unlikely that I’ll be sued by anyone sitting under them, – that though I’m being careful about putting up my Succah, I’m being careless about loving my neighbours as myself.
But, much as I love Succah building and believe it should be in the top five of everybody’s favourite Jewish practices, it was not my very best moment this year. That came two days later, when we began to harvest the potatoes growing in the Synagogue garden. Leslie Lyndon and I notified Gan Alon, and all the children came to participate. Digging up potatoes is always exciting; after all, one never knows if there will actually be any potatoes there, or how many or how large they will turn out be.
The children loved the activity, and so did we! There were plenty of large potatoes, small potatoes, red potatoes and white potatoes, and everyone had a turn at gathering them in. There was big boxful for Gan Alon to share. In fact there are several bowls full of them in the synagogue kitchen and I fantasise about a potato Kiddush: mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, baked potatoes and chips. Please note the word ‘fantasise’. What I’d really like is for people to take some home in return for a donation of their choice to a charity concerned with hunger.
This is really what Succot is about; joy and gratitude before God for the earth’s blessings, without which none of us could live. A Succah should be beautiful, to reflect the earth’s beauty, hung with its bounty to show thankfulness for the world’s generosity, and full of people to share the earth’s blessings together.
That these matters must never be taken for granted was brought home to be forcefully when my friend and colleague Rabbi Marc Soloway told me of the prayer he has written in the wake of the floods in Boulder, Colorado, which have wrecked his synagogue, parts of his home and the homes of numerous members of his community.
We will be saying this prayer in our services, and are supporting the local emergency appeal.
May the rain and the sun be for a blessing! Chag Sameach