First Day of Sukkot
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach
The Sages of the Talmud had a special name for this Holiday. They did not call it Sukkot, even though they commanded everyone to live in a Sukkah. The Torah calls this Hag HaAsaf, the Harvest Festival but that was not good enough for the Sages either. The Sages simply called this Holiday, “HaHag”, “THE Festival” it was the happiest festival, it was, to the Sages, the best Holiday that Judaism had to offer.
Why was Sukkot such a happy time? Well, first of all the harvest was in. There had not been a drought, a blight or a famine. Enemies had not come to steal the food or to destroy the crops. Everyone knew that there would be enough food to get through the winter. That alone was a reason to rejoice. There had also been enough water for the harvest. The rainy season was about to begin and there were celebrations and prayers for the next year’s rains. That was another reason to celebrate. Finally there were special sacrifices for all the other nations of the world. We prayed that all nations would have the food that they needed and ample water for their citizens so they would not have to go to war. Sukkot was a holiday of international peace. That too is a good reason to celebrate.
But I think that real reason for the joy of Sukkot is being outside, under the sky and under the stars, smelling the flowers and branches of the Sukkah and getting back in touch with the wonders of God’s world. There are so many berachot that the Sages command us to say when we see the hand of God in nature that Sukkot is a natural time to be thankful for all the wonders of the world.
When I see a sunset or a sunrise (I get up early in the morning), I see the hand of God. When I see lightening and rain, I see God’s blessings. When I see trees, flowers and grass together in a garden or out in the forest or meadow, I see the beauty of God’s paintbrush. When I see the crashing of the waves of the ocean, the majesty of the mountains, the vastness of the Great Plains, I see God’s wonders. When I see a sand dune on the shore, crystals growing in the rocks and the many different animals and insects that share our world, I can’t help but contemplate God’s hand in the world. (I do draw the line, however, with mosquitoes; I think they are an accident of nature.)
There are so many people, however, who see what I see but they don’t see God at all. They may take for granted all the wonders of nature. They understand that God cannot be seen so they think that God is hidden away somewhere; way up in heaven, out in the vastness of space, or hidden in the deepest bowels of the earth. God is far removed from this world and far removed from their attention. If God is nearby, they just don’t see the divinity.
There is a famous story of a fish who overheard two men talking by the shore. They said that water was the most important thing in the entire world, that life is not possible without water. The fish began to think, “I would love to see this wonder called “water”, wherever could it be found? He began to ask all the fish in the pond but none of them ever heard of water. He swam downstream, and he asked every other fish he met if they could show him water, but none of them had ever heard of water let alone know where it could be found. Out into the deep see went our friend the fish until he met a wise old fish deep in the sea. “Of course I know what water is,” said the old fish. “I understand it is important for all life. Can you show it to me?” asked our friend. “Show it to you?” said the old fish, “it is all around you, above you and below you, water is everywhere!” But the little fish could not understand how water could be everywhere so, as far as we know, he is still looking for water.
Where would we go if we were looking for God? The Torah tells us that God is not in heaven that we would need some great thinker to go there to hear God’s word. And God is not over the sea, that we need some hero to go and brave the storms to bring us the word of God. No, God is close by, all around us, above us and below us. Everything we see, touch, taste or hear is filled with God. Most of the time we are too busy to notice. Sukkot gets us outside and helps us get ready to pay attention to experience the God that surrounds us.
Rabbi Shira Milgrom sees God in the cable cars of San Francisco. How do these trolleys, full of people manage to climb up or down the steep streets of their city? The secret is under the surface of the road. There, under the tracks, is a steel cable. When the trolley wants to go up the hill, it attaches itself to one of the cables and is pulled up the hill. When it needs to go downhill, it does the same thing, so as not to go downhill out of control. Even when there is no cable car in sight, one can look down into the opening in the street to see that the cables are always running.
So too, God is the force of life that runs through all that we experience in the world. Sometimes the divinity of the universe bubbles to the surface. We can notice it when someone we least expect does something heroic, like saving a child from a burning building or sheltering a family who is being persecuted, or protesting an injustice. Perhaps anytime we do what is right even against our own self interest it is an example of God’s hand in the world, always running.
When we go outside to dwell in our Sukkot, we become more sensitive to the world, both the harmony and the inequality of the world. Our Sukkah reminds us that there are those who sleep every night without a roof over their heads. When we eat in the Sukkah, it is hard not to consider the plight of some 30,000 children who die each year in third world countries, not because there is not enough food in the world, only because rich nations don’t send excess food to poor nations. When we gather with our families in our Sukkah, we realize how much courage a person needs takes to love another in this world. We have to ignore the possibility of separation, of disappointment and of death and we have to love anyway. In all of these ways we can experience the divinity that is constantly pulling at us to be a better person, to pay attention to the needs of people around us and to hear the call that will lead us to a life that will be meaningful and significant, to those in this world who are in need of a hand.
If Sukkot is a happy holiday it is because we once again tap into that divine force that runs through all of life. We understand anew that God fills the world with holiness and fill us with so much love and compassion that we cannot help but extend our hands and our hearts to those in need of help and understanding. On Sukkot we realize that God can be found in the knowledge that life, all life, especially our life, matters, makes a difference and is significant even in the vastness of the universe.
Sukkot is not only about being out in nature, it is about our becoming one with the divinity that surrounds us. Sukkot is about us partnering with God to make the world kinder, more loving and better. On Sukkot we remember to welcome guests, feed the hungry, help shelter the homeless and heal the sick and broken hearted. Our hands become God’s hands. Our feet become God’s feet and instead of asking, “Where is God?” we respond to the world saying, “For the sake of God, I can make a difference.”
That is a reason to get outside and to get in touch with the outdoors. That is the way we can find meaning in nature, life and the universe. And that is the most important reason to rejoice on this extraordinary festival. May God be near to us not just this day but every day, and may we tap into the divinity coursing through the world so that we can also be a force for good, for life and for peace.
And let us say Amen and Hag Sameach