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A Sukkot Family Service

Sukkot, Summer 1990

OPENING SONG

Hinnay Ma Tov

How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to celebrate together.

S ’TAV

Autumn is here. The days and nights are colder. The leaves are turning brown and gold and red. The sun spends less time with us and darkness arrives earlier than before.

Autumn is here. Everything is changing. Nothing lasts forever. What is born must also die. What is new must also grow old. Nature never stays the same. All the world is moving.

Autumn is here. Everything is beginning. School starts again. Work is renewed. Activity increases. While the life of nature ebbs, human energy grows stronger.

S ’tav is the Hebrew word for “autumn.”

SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

KATSEER

Autumn is harvest time. The seeds of spring have turned into the food of winter. The work of summer has brought forth the bread of life. We live with nature. It gives us grain and fruit. It yields up fish and fowl. It sends us survival.

But nature needs more than nature. Farming is far more than finding food. It takes human ingenuity to turn the earth into a field of corn. It requires human caring to change the sapling into the successful tree. The harvest does not happen all by itself.  Nature and people work together. We need each other.

Katseer is the Hebrew word for “harvest.”

SONG

Artsa Aleenoo

We have gone up to our land.

SUKKA

Autumn is harvest time in Israel. The fruit on the trees is ready for picking. The grain in the field is ready for cutting. The land is filled with joy. The winter will be secure.

In olden times, Jewish farmers stayed all day in the fields at harvest time. They were very busy and had no time to return home. In the heat of the day, they stopped work for a while and rested in special huts nearby. The huts were frail structures, decorated with the special fruits of the harvest and open to the sky. Our ancestors sang songs, they danced, they ate their midday meal and returned to work.

Sukka is the Hebrew word for “hut.”

SONG

Hava Nageela

Come and rejoice.

SUKKOT

Autumn is a special time for celebration. Like all the seasons of the year, it brings its own unique joy. Holidays are times of celebration. They make us aware of what is important in our lives. They make us notice the beauty of things and places and people.

As far back as we can remember, the Jewish people have always enjoyed a fall festival. They have taken the time to honor the autumn, to pay tribute to the harvest, to sing and to dance. There was so much to do, one day was never enough. Eight days were better. The autumn holiday needed eight days.

Sukkot is the Hebrew name for the fall festival.

SONG

Zoom Galee

Rejoice.

LULAV

Holidays need parades. Parades need special things for people to hold and wave.

Sukkot needs a parade —not an ordinary one with flags and floats but a special one with harvest grain and harvest fruit.

In the land of Israel, the date palm grows tall and straight. At harvest time its dates are sweet and nourishing, its branches are long and graceful.

The palm branch is a beautiful Sukkot banner. For many years, Jews have marched with it to celebrate the harvest and to honor the autumn season. They decorate it with the leaves of myrtle and willow. They wave it to the sound of flutes and drums. They march with it in long processions.

Lulav is the Hebrew word for “palm branch.”

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

ETROG

The lulav did not stand alone. Tradition found it a partner, not long and thin and green but short, round, and yellow.

There is a special fruit that grows in the land of Israel. It grows nowhere else. It looks like a wrinkled lemon, but it does not taste like a lemon. Nor does it smell like a lemon. It has a special taste all its own. It has a special fragrance that is unique. People like to smell it because it smells like perfume.

The special fruit is the partner of the lulav. They always go together. They remind us of life: Some people are tall. Some of us are short. But all of us are important.

Etrog is the Hebrew name for this fragrant fruit.

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

SIMHA

When holidays come we think of all the good things in life. We think of the beauties of nature, the love of family, the importance of friendship, the power of roots.

The good things in life bring us happiness. They give meaning to our existence. They offer us strength and hope.

Sukkot is a time of happiness. It is a time of joy. Just as in ages past our ancestors marched and sang and danced, so do we. We stamp our feet. We clap our hands. We proclaim our joy.

Simha is the Hebrew word for “joy.”

CLOSING SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

Our Dietary Laws

Sukkot, Summer 1990

Sukkot, like most Jewish holidays, is about food. The celebration of the fall harvest is marked by Sukkot, as the celebration of the spring harvest is marked by Pesakh and Shavuot. The fertility of the earth and of animals is where it all began.

Now, food is not trivial (despite the fact that highbrows deplore gastronomic Judaism). Food is even more important than sex; without nutrition, reproduction fails. Food is survival. All religions began with rituals to regulate the eating of food, whether the food was given to humans or to gods.

It is by no mere coincidence that our deepest and most profound religious attachments are to celebrations that center on eating. The seder remains the most popular Jewish event in North America. Sharing food goes back to the earliest memories of family and community.

All cultures regulate eating. Some, like the Anglo-Saxon, do so informally, without explicit legislation; Anglo-Saxons simply do not eat dogs, cats, or horses. Others, like Jews, do it formally with much fanfare and with very specific laws in sacred documents.

But why these prohibitions?

All cultures view certain foods as dangerous. The dangers may come from a variety of circumstances. The food may belong to the gods and not to humans. It may be prepared in the wrong way. It may be eaten at the wrong time. It may be restricted to social groups other than your own.

In Jewish culture, which was a meat-eating culture, the danger lay in blood. Blood was a food that belonged to Yahveh alone. To drink blood was to steal the food of God and to risk the punishment that would almost certainly ensue. Blood-eating carnivorous animals were not considered proper (kosher) for eating. Kosher vegetarian animals, like cows, sheep, and goats, had to be killed in a kosher way allowing for the maximum bleeding of the slain animal. And, as an extra precaution, the meat had to be salted to draw out the last vestiges of the blood. (Ironically, humans could eat meat or fowl, while the beasts or birds they chose to eat could not. Even pigs, which are on the edge of vegetarianism, were excluded because of their piggish habit of eating any blood-soaked refuse in sight.)

In time these dietary restrictions became an intimate part of Jewish identity. Long after most Jews had ceased to believe that blood was the food of God, long after they had stopped believing that eating blood was dangerous, they continued to obey the laws and observe the prohibitions. Eating habits begin in childhood and are reinforced by community approval and disapproval. As long as Jews lived in closed, tight-knit communities, the dietary laws retained their power. Jews obeyed them because they were Jews, and because there was some vague unconscious fear that if they failed to obey something terrible would happen.

Modern times have subverted this obedience. Political emancipation and an open society, combined with individualism and secular education, have weakened the hold of the dietary prohibitions. Most Conservative Jews and virtually all Reform and secular Jews no longer observe the traditional food laws, regarding them as alienating, inconvenient, or meaningless. Some Jews feel guilty about discarding them. Others create their own personal revisions: kosher food in the home but not outside, shrimp but not pork. Still others go on kosher binges once or twice a year, especially around Pesakh or Rosh Hashana. But, on the whole, the old discipline is confined to a small minority.

“I don’t keep kosher” is the refrain of most secular Jews. The tone implies that the speaker is now liberated from dietary laws. But is that true, or even desirable?

My observation is that many liberal Jews have substituted one set of dietary restrictions for another. And, in many cases, the new laws are more demanding than the ones they have replaced.

For many of my secular Jewish friends, dangerous foods dominate their conscious thought. Cholesterol has replaced blood as the enemy, and fat is a foe as vicious as pork. Calories are like bacon, insidious intruders into the health of the community.

In this age of scientific nutrition, laissez-faire food consumption has become about as rational as diving from an airplane without a parachute. Every day modern medicine warns us of more and more dangers to our bodies and to our survival. The most delicious pleasures of life are diminished as we surrender to the discipline of health and fitness. Giving up hot fudge for celery may be far more traumatic then giving up pork for mutton.

Recently, I was on a panel with an Orthodox rabbi who was overweight and a chain smoker. He spent most of his time

praising the dietary laws and how they instill a sense of discipline into the daily life of the Jew. Each statement about discipline was punctuated by a long puff of his cigarette, leading up to the finale: a racking cough.

I told him that, from my point of view, tobacco was more dangerous than shrimp and fried schmaltz was more devastating than lean pork. I also pointed out to him that, when it comes to dietary discipline, no generation of Jews since the Exodus has been more disciplined than the health-craving, weight-watching, pleasure-curtailing secular Jews of modern America.

But we refuse to give ourselves credit for what we do. We are always falling into the Orthodox trap of complaining how

discipline has fallen out of Jewish life, of how hedonism with its short-run pleasures and absence of long-run goals has

subverted the solid values of traditional Judaism. We fail to see our own stern regimen simply because nobody has bothered to turn it into a divine decree.

Of course Humanistic Jews have dietary laws. They are not the same as the Orthodox. They are not absolute: new evidence constantly forces us to review them. They are not universal; there are different formulas for different physiques. They are not cruel; excommunication or execution seems a harsh penalty for refusing to take care of one’s own health. They are not relentless; lapses are only human and moderation makes sense. But they are more than suggestions. They flow from the collective wisdom of the scientific community.

When I teach young children, I have no reluctance to tell them not to smoke tobacco. I believe the evidence is pretty

overwhelming that smoking can give them cancer. I do not threaten communal punishment or advocate that their right to smoke in private be taken away. But my responsibility is to encourage them to exercise the discipline that is necessary to their health.

Health is a Jewish value (though not an exclusively Jewish one). It is as important a value as Jewish identity. It needs both information and discipline to make it real.

We Humanistic Jews have a new and very different set of dietary laws that are an important part of our lives. As I munch on lettuce and dream of brownies, I recognize that the fates are sometimes cruel. We are designed to love what may not be good for us.

The harvest gave us blueberries and potatoes. Human ingenuity gave us blueberry pie and potato latkes. Fighting human ingenuity is not always easy.

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)

The Rabbi Writes: Sukkot

The Jewish Humanist, October 1976, Vol. 14, Number 2

Sukkot begins Friday, October 8. 

Sukkot is a harvest festival, a farmers’ holiday.  It celebrates an experience which our ancestors tasted annually when they lived as a nation in ancient Palestine.   

Today Sukkot is a vicarious experience for the vast majority of Jews.  It celebrates what urban Jews no longer taste.  The harvest is something we understand and value.  But it is not a primary event in our life cycle. 

For the contemporary Jew Sukkot is an expression of our attachment to our roots.  It is an expression of our nostalgic attachment to the land where we began.  The fruit harvest of Israel is important to us because Israel is important to us. 

Modern Israel, however, is radically different from ancient Israel.  The secular founders of the Jewish state not only ignored Yahveh.  They also ignored all other gods.  Although they succeeded in bringing large numbers of Jews back to the land, they also created an industrial state where the overwhelming majority of Israelis are urban and capitalist consumers. 

In one respect modern Israel is like ancient Palestine.  The Hebrews who invaded the land found a nation already living there.  That nation was the people of Canaan.  The Canaanites were West Semitic brothers of the Hebrews who had lived in Palestine long before the Hebrew federation had come into being. 

Even though the pious and fanatic editors of the Bible resisted the truth, the fact is that the Hebrews were unable to subdue and destroy all the Canaanites.  They lived side by side with them for many centuries and shared the land.  The prophets found this association offensive because they thought it was subversive of the purity of the Yahvistic religion.  Many political leaders found this connection disgusting because they preferred the military strength of a homogeneous population.  But they were forced to accept reality.  Extermination of the natives was both unmoral (sic) and dangerous.  The danger lay in the fact that the Canaanites had relatives living outside of Israel who would have been provoked by such action.  These relatives were called Phoenicians by the Greeks. 

Modern Israel also shares the land with another nation, which has powerful relatives outside its borders.  The Arabs are the modern Canaanites.  Although Jews and Arabs hate each other they are forced to live together on the same piece of real estate. 

In Greater Israel (post 1967 Israel) almost 40% of the population is Arab.  Most of these Arabs are without political and civil rights.  Four hundred thousand Arabs are Israeli citizens, residents of the old Israel.  One million Arabs are without citizenship, residents of Gaza, Judea and Samaria. 

These Arabs will not go away.  They can no longer be expelled.  Even if all Palestinian refugees are forbidden to return, they will remain a large minority of the Israeli population.  If their birth rate persists, they will eventually become the majority. 

Only two situations can reverse this reality.  (1) Israel returns Judea, Samaria and Gaza to their former Arab owners.  (2) Thousands of European and American Jews immigrate to Israel. 

Neither situation is likely. 

The Israeli government cannot return the occupied territories to Jordan or Egypt.  To do so would be to re-create (sic) the old indefensible boundaries of….    (pages 3-4 missing from journal)