A Humanistic View of Sukkot

Sukkot, Summer 1990

The Jewish calendar features three seasonal holidays, which are grand celebrations stretching over a week or eight days.

The autumn gives us Sukkot. The winter presents Hanukka. And the spring delivers Pesakh. Tied to the agricultural year, these are the splendid old festivals of our Hebrew roots.

Sukkot was the major celebration during the era of the royal House of David. Rosh Hashana was its climactic last day and Yom Kippur was a preceding day of preparation. Lying between the summer harvest and the rainy season, Sukkot featured both satisfaction with the past and anxiety over the future. The parade with the palm branches and citrons —with its passionate cry of “Hoshana” (“save us”) — provided the pageantry and the magic. Hopefully, Yahveh (or whatever god was in fashion) would respond to this appeal with the gift of rain.

In the priestly period — when the Torah was completed — Sukkot was transformed. Yielding to Pesakh as the chief holiday, Sukkot also developed an Exodus theme. Although it was essentially an agricultural festival, Sukkot was now tied to the legendary forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert. The decorative harvest booths (sukkot) that gave the holiday its name and that were initially used by harvesters for rest during the midday sun — were now bizarrely described as the housing of the Hebrew nomads wending their way from Egypt to Canaan.

This distortion fit into the demands of priestly theology. The Exodus story in the Torah was the ultimate tribute to Yahvistic power and divine providence. All holidays were ripped from their original contexts by the priestly editors and given an Exodus setting. If they did not commemorate any events, at least their place of origin became Mt. Sinai.

In rabbinic Judaism, Sukkot suffered from two problems. The first was the proximity of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,

which overshadowed it. The second was the urbanization of the Jew, which diminished the importance of a rain festival.

While Sukkot remained a major holiday, it lacked its former emotional clout. Ultimately, it was rescued by tying it to the

Torah. The last day of the festival was chosen for the end and the beginning of the annual cycle of Torah readings. Renamed Simhat Torah, the celebration provided attachments more relevant than agricultural memories.

With the coming of the secular age and the Industrial Revolution, Sukkot fell on hard times. Metropolitan Jews found an

agricultural celebration to be slightly quaint. And there was no grand idea or striking historical event to give it dramatic

shape. Ultimately, only the Zionists in their new agricultural settlements in Israel were able to rescue it.

From a humanistic point of view, Sukkot has special significance. Agriculture was the beginning of human civilization,

a quantum jump in the human mastery of the environment. The emergence of farming some ten thousand years ago revolutionized human existence. Territorial settlements, cities, population growth, surplus wealth, and written language followed quite naturally from this technological success. It lay the foundation for the human self-confidence that led to the secular age.

Farming is not, as many misguided urban nature lovers imagine, a manifestation of being close to nature and loving

its generosity. It began as the painful struggle against the hostility of swampy river valleys and waterless plateaus. Human ingenuity transformed the inhospitable wilderness into the tailored countryside that we find so pleasing and that we so often call “nature.” Parks and farmland and wilderness trails are human creations that shield us from the brutal reality of our evolutionary past.

But farming is only one of many steps in the cultural unfolding of human talent. The taming of wild animals and the breeding of “meat” is another. The invention of the crafts and the manufacture of technological assistants is still another.

And the transformation of fortresses into cities of trade and production is yet another.

Theology may seek to turn Sukkot into a tribute to divine providence. But experience teaches us that if tributes are to be

paid, they should be paid to the millions of unsung experimenters and inventors who struggled to make the earth yield a

decent living.

Jewish history is a living testimony to human ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. The same intelligence that made agriculture possible made cities and urban living possible. City existence is not the “artificial” antithesis of “close to nature” farm life. Villages and farms are just as artificial. Neither context, fortunately, resembles the primeval muck that our hunting ancestors struggled to endure.

An imaginative and humanistic use of Sukkot would avoid making invidious comparisons between the pure and divine

harvests of agricultural life and the sullied “harvests” of manufactured goods and services that modern urban existence provides. Both farming and industrial technology are expressions of the human will to change and to improve what is

not satisfactory. The breeding of juicy oranges is no less scientific and intrusive than the invention of computers.

A humanistic Sukkot is a tribute to human culture, agricultural, pastoral, and urban. There are many “harvests,” all

human, all “artificial,” all significant. The spaceship is the natural brother of the plow.

The early entry of the Jew into urban life, as part of the Jewish survival saga, is not alien to the mood of Sukkot. It is an expression of the same human ingenuity that cultivates the lulav and the etrog.

Meditations for Sukkot

CREATIVITY

Nature has two feces. Like an indulgent mother, it may smile protectively while caressing us with warmth and light. Or, like some cruel tyrant, it may laugh at our suffering, devouring our life in devilish upheavals and tempests. Human survival is no product of a benign world. It is the perpetual struggle of humanity with a universe that is often less than friendly. If autumn, as the season of harvest, suggests the scenic beauty of the rural countryside, it also announces the triumph of human ingenuity over die rocks and swamps and the unkempt wildness of empty fields. Farming is no passive art in which pastoral angels effortlessly pluck the fruits of life. History has made it a hard and taxing profession, by which human intelligence turns disaster into hope. Without the creative planning of human decision, there would be no harvest. As the frail sukka booth defies the winds of autumn and stands firm, so do creative farmers resist nature’s hostility and, by their wits, survive.

LIFE

The spirit of Sukkot goes beyond the harvest. Wherever human beings have tamed the primitive landscape of nature’s face and turned it to the useful business of human pleasure, this holiday finds a congenial home. Wherever the creative talent of human thought has rescued the natural elements from moral indifference and put them to work to make people less afraid, this festival can be comfortably celebrated. The technical marvel of the modem city is no emotional stranger to the harvest season. It shares with the ancient farmer a persistent wish. In the golden barley fields of biblical Israel, as well as in the concrete vertical thrust of the new Manhattan, the human determination to live finds its expression.

LOVE

Thanksgiving and gratitude are natural to this season. No person alone can subdue nature to human needs. Without the bonds of human love and cooperation, intelligence is useless. Our need for other people, our leaning on the efforts of other men and women, makes the claim of total self-sufficiency a pretense. Where people will not work together, there are no harvests. Where the ordered ties of human society are absent, there are no cities. Mutual dependence demands mutual gratitude. If we know that we need each other, thankful feelings arise.

PROCESSION

Our ancestors matched the splendor of the harvest with the magnificence of their celebration. They seized the luscious fruits of their labor and paraded them in song-filled processions. Branches of the stately date palm and the fragrant citrons of perfumed orchards filled their hands. They did not hide the joy of their success behind solemn prayers but danced out the pleasure of their victory for life.

— Sherwin T. Wine

(adapted from Celebrations)