During the festival of Sukkot (“Tabernacles” for some), we are catapulted into a totally different mood and atmosphere just five days after Yom Kippur. But I am going to admit that it does strange things to me. It makes me totally aware of contradictions, mine and others.
According to the Talmud we must leave our permanent homes and move into temporary accommodation that needs two and a half walls and a roof made out of anything grown from the ground and is no longer attached to it. We are supposed to remember what it was like living as nomads when our ancestors wandered through the Sinai desert. Indeed we not only have to eat and spend time in our Sukkot but we ought to be sleeping there too (not sure what that’ll do for family relations even if it is only a male obligation). In Israel there are some areas here where whole building facades are dotted with small balcony based Sukkot and Jewish ghettos around the world have Sukkot in every eatery. In Golders Green and Hendon you see them on the street practically every ten paces and that’s not counting ubiquitous Lubavitch caravan Sukkahs.
But here in Hendon the private Sukkah, usually not visible from the road, has taken on another dimension. You get an architect to design a special extension, suitably heated and air conditioned that makes a great play room or home gym during the year. You have an electronically operated movable roof under which you lay your kosher roofing material and you install special electronic sensors that automatically move the permanent roof back into position the moment it rains. It is comfortably carpeted and beautifully decorated. Now that’s temporary? That’s something the Children of Israel in the desert will have recognized and identified with I suppose. It’s legal of course. It’s not only in English Law that asses put in an appearance.
On the other hand, let’s be fair. My daughter and son-in-law’s Sukkah, the prefabricated style with canvas walls on a collapsible frame, was all but destroyed several times in the monsoon deluges of the past ten days. A quick press of a button would have saved a great deal of time, energy and pre Yom Tov nerves. Isn’t it nice how we can harness modernity when we want to, embrace science when it suits us to and still try and remain loyal to a constitution that’s three thousand years old? It’s no different to building your own private mikvah and avoiding the lines, the late night excursions in a bath towel and the prying eyes.
In Israel one can do it as commanded. The weather is different. Sleeping outside is no hardship. The problems are bugs and mosquitoes. In England it can be all but impossible as it was this year if you really follow the Talmudic blue print to spend most of your time under the stars. But then it always used to strike me as strange to start praying for rain in England until Global Warming and this year’s drought. Perhaps the Almighty is trying to tell us something. So here we have contradiction number one. If we sit in centrally heated brick walled, electronically operated Sukkot is this keeping the spirit as well as the law?
Then there are the Four Plants, the lulav, etrog, willows and myrtles. Clearly all are symbols of the need for water to sustain nature and the link between us nature and God. But by the time the mystics finished adding their explanations that specific link was all but lost. We should be really concerned about preserving and protecting God’s natural world; ecological disasters, loss of species and the way our physical material needs are poisoning and ravaging our planet. God only promised Noah He wouldn’t destroy the world again. He never said anything about us doing it! Yet these issues are simply not part of the Orthodox agenda. I bet not one Rosh Yeshiva or Rebbe will have raised it over the festival this year.
And so we come to that amazing innovation of the prophets The Temple Well House Celebrations. This is what the Talmud says about it (Sukkah 51b-53a.)
‘He who has not seen the celebrations of the Well House has never ever really seen real celebration. After the first days of the festival they started to make preparations in the Temple…they made huge candelabra that lit up all the courtyards of Jerusalem. Young priests used ladders to climb up carrying barrels oil. Pious and good men used to dance with lit torches in their hands and sing songs of praise while the Levites played harps and lutes and cymbals and trumpets…Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel used to take eight lit torches throw them in the air and catch them without one touching the other. He would also prostrate himself by digging his thumbs into the ground and raise and lower himself, something no other man could do.’
Can you imagine? The greatest rabbi of the day, a juggler and a body builder, doing full body push ups on his thumbs? They sure built them differently in those days.
Now when it comes to Simchat Torah and dancing around, the dancing is either sedate, boring and perfunctory or drink driven wild chaos masquerading as religious ecstasy. Good for inhibitions perhaps but so is coke. At religious weddings on the other hand you’ll see religious dancing that is choreographed, frum hoedowns or kosher break dancing. But somehow as soon as it gets near a synagogue it tends to lose the plot. Actually modern reenactments of the Well House celebrations are worth looking in on!
Perhaps it’s a sign of age that I simply don’t enjoy hopping around holding on to a sweaty man, or being squashed in a tightly pressed circle of slow moving shocklers. And I certainly don’t like getting drunk. But on the other hand I can’t juggle and as for press ups I need two full hands and its still a struggle. I love Torah. Not so keen on the dancing. Is there something wrong with me? Is this where my inhibiting Anglo upbringing that has somehow got in the way and overcomes my yeshiva training? Am I allowing “English” decorum to inhibit religious fervor? Or is it simply that a lot of what passes for religious enthusiasm is fake and I see through it?
I don’t really know. But I do know that all this underlines the fact that Jewish custom and tradition is so varied and variegated, it offers so many different ways of celebrating life and spirit that if one is interested in looking one can surely find something that will appeal. Just don’t expect everyone else to agree with your choices!