Monday, September 28, 2015

The challenge of celebrating Sukkot in the Land of Israel

Each of the three pilgrimage festivals  – Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot – has an agricultural ‎dimension and a historical dimension. The historical dimension refers to the development of the ‎Israelites as a nation: the exodus to freedom on Passover, revelation on Shavuot and wandering in ‎the desert on Sukkot. But that wasn’t the end of the process. What happened to entering the Land ‎of Israel and settling there? Isn’t something important missing? Maybe.
Or maybe not. ‎

The agricultural dimensions of Passover and Shavuot relate to field crops, the time between planting ‎and harvesting is measured in months. Sukkot celebrates the harvest of fruit that grows on trees, ‎which require prolonged residence in one place, years pass between planting and harvest. Nomads ‎do not plant trees. Sukkot celebrates life in the Land of Israel. This I learned from Sarah Shoub. ‎

The entire period in the desert was not one of wandering. Most of the stations were in the first two ‎years and the last year, but the schedule was not known in advance. On any given day the cloud of ‎glory could rise and the command given to move on. In a situation of uncertainty, planting trees is ‎pointless. Those who experience the uncertainty of the desert years are be able to appreciate and ‎celebrate settlement in the Land of Israel. Indeed, the may be the only ones… ‎

The Book of Nehemiah (chapter 8) tells about events after the return from Babylonia: ‎
And on the second day [of the seventh month] the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, ‎the priests, and the Levites gather before Ezra the scribe, to give attention to the words of the ‎Law. And they found written in the Law, how that the LORD had commanded by Moses, that ‎the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month …  And all the ‎congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the ‎booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not ‎done so. And there was very great gladness. ‎
It seems that dwelling in sukkah (as I understand it, not the whole holiday) was forgotten after one ‎generation of settlement. The second generation celebrated the harvest but not the desert years. It is ‎difficult to comprehend wandering and settlement at the same time, yet the ability to hold on to ‎opposites and keep moving forward is the power of the Torah. ‎

Moreover, I – and not only I – think that this explains some of the difficulties on the list of holidays ‎in Leviticus 23. After a full list of holy days comes a final declaration:  “Those are the set times of ‎the LORD that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions.” Only then come the commandments ‎regarding the four species and dwelling in a sukkah: “You shall live in booths seven days; all ‎citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the ‎Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”‎

Not only does this paragraph read like an appendix, it’s the only place where dwelling in sukkot is ‎mentioned. Throughout the Torah, the Israelites in the desert lived in tents. The theory is that this ‎passage was added after the return to Zion to reinforce the holiday, and attachment to the Land. ‎

Time passed, the people of Israel were again exiled. The experiences of wandering and transience ‎took center stage.  ‎

We have returned to the Land. We still remember exile but are beginning to forget. The facts are ‎known but the feeling is blurred. The pain of memory does not drives us to love the stranger because ‎we were strangers in the land of Egypt, to love the refugee because we were refugees in the lands of ‎the north. ‎

I won’t pretend to have a solution for the international refugee crisis that has been brewing for years. It seems that we are facing an historical process of massive ‎proportions. I’m not sure that there is an overall solution. But it is clear that we may not hide behind ‎a wall, real or virtual, built of concrete or illusions of immunity. We are forbidden to close our eyes ‎or turn our backs on such massive suffering. Deuteronomy makes it very clear. We must love the ‎stranger and if we behave like the other nations, we could be exiled again. ‎

Sitting safely in a fancy Sukkah and feeling happiness and pride in our harvest and how beautifully ‎we keep the commandment is not enough. When celebrating settlement and wandering together, we ‎must step out of our comfortable place and reach to those who are yet to reach their own place in ‎the world. If dwelling in our land closes to our hearts to the other, we may well find ourselves back at a ‎disadvantage. ‎

May we merit to truly keep the commandment: “You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with ‎your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, the stranger, ‎the fatherless, and the widow in your midst.” ‎

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