Forgive me for saying this but I am rather proud of our Sukkah this year here at EHRS. It’s properly covered with laurel grown in Annita Tischler’s garden, hung with fruit given by many members of the community, all put together by a big gang of helpers. It’s full of decorations and pictures and even totem poles made by our children at last Sunday’s wonderful Sukkah decoration party, as reported in this week’s Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News, both on the lookout for a good news story which we were able to provide. The ‘around the world’ theme of our Sukkah has been enhanced this week by the addition of Nagila Airlines aeroplane with all of the Nagila kids as passengers. As a symbol of our Synagogue’s commitment to environmental protection last year’s Lulavim were not thrown away but rather take pride of place as the structure of the Magen David at the far end of the Sukkah.
Our Sukkah as a result does a great job of celebrating the bounty of how we benefit from the harvests which bring us our food. As we are told in the Torah reading which begins Sukkot – when you have gathered in your harvest then celebrate, enjoy a festival.
That is all that we hear in the Torah reading which commands Sukkot on this Shabbat, Chol Ha Moed Sukkot – in the Book of Deuteronomy which seems to have been edited to be a simple summary of the basics of Sukkot emphasising that it should be celebrated in the Temple in Jerusalem. However in the fuller version in the Book of Leviticus which we heard here on Tuesday, Sukkot first day morning, the command has a second aspect. It includes the command to dwell in Sukkahs so that you will always remember that you were liberated from Egypt and struggled through the desert living in simple shelters.
Why ruin a nice celebration of delight with memories of a struggle? What is going on? The Torah seems to be full of this conundrum. Things seem to be going well, in the probably not very useful phrase “God is on our side” but then it all goes wrong.
Adam and Eve are in paradise in the Garden of Eden then they eat the fruit which they are forbidden and they are expelled from the Garden. Abraham and Sarah have their longed for child Isaac then Abraham is asked to offer him up as a sacrifice. Jacob is settled in the land of his wanderings and then his daughter Dinah is taken off by a local chieftain. The Israelites are living well in Goshen in Egypt then the new Pharaoh becomes scared of them and enslaves them. They are freed from slavery then find their way blocked by the Sea of Reeds. When the Israelites are in the desert and wandering towards their promised land the water runs out. They are ready to enter the Promised Land and then have to join in battle against the Moabites.
It is as if the life of our people is a continual series of struggles and obstacles to be overcome. It is as if being connected by God by covenant and being part of a religion and a religious people does not grant you an easy life but rather brings you into a constant series of tsourises.
Of course it’s actually the other way round. Life, real life is normally, unless you are exceptionally lucky punctuated or even beset with a constant series of struggles, challenges. Life doesn’t run easy. Religious life does not grant you a pass through these struggles. Bad things do happen to good people.
As today we celebrate Rita Knopf’s 90th birthday her own life is a testament to this reality in extremis – to know that this lady survived three years in Thereisenstadt and then in Displaced Persons camps and yet brought herself, with her husband Kurt z’’l, to a life where she is able to celebrate with children and grandchildren here in safety in the UK shows what can be overcome.
The story of the Jewish people emphasises this trajectory. Reflecting the struggles in the Torah the history of the Jewish people records times of peace and progress punctuated by terrible challenges and disaster from the Hadrianic persecutions to the Crusades to the mass expulsions of Jewish communities throughout Europe to the Shoah, and even now we have Israel it is beset constantly with challenges to its very existence.
You can see the effect of our troubled history in every Jewish wedding ceremony. Jewish weddings used to be two part ceremonies, a betrothal called Erusin followed by the wedding itself up to a year later called Nissuin. Because it became too uncertain in too many places that the couple would still be able to travel to each other, or even that both bride and groom would still be traceable, in the twelfth century the two ceremonies were combined into one as we now have it. The natural world and our own bodies are too fragile, the human scene too volatile, relationships too diverse and interactive for a smooth path through life to be possible for anyone.
So what is Judaism for then if it is not to give us a pass to a straightforward life? It’s not and it never was. Rather what it means to be a Jew is to be granted the opportunity to find support and care throughout the inevitable struggles of life. It means that you will be part of a community which will, if it follows the principles of our religion’s requirements for relationships between people, give you support and care, whether or not you are family. It means that you will feel God’s guiding hand giving you shape and meaning to your life. It will bring you into relationship with millions of others who share your struggles through the world who will take you in and feed you when you need them. Through the festivals it will give you opportunities to celebrate, to find joy in the best way we can – with others of all generations.
Judaism recognises that life is a struggle – personally, communally and existentially – a point made clearly in our Megllah for Sukkot, Kohelet. Its message being that whatever we accumulate as possessions or power is meaningless in itself. So what we need and what true Judaism provides is a way of making it through the tough times and creating many good times. For me it is one of the many things I love about our religion. It’s not here to say the world should be easy for good people – rather it’s here to help me find a way through good and bad and to move me to try to bring better for the world around me.
Taking this back to Israel for a moment. The Jewish state does not live easily, of course. Its young men and women are trained to deal with the struggle and to find their way round tough times that have been in the past and might yet come again. The Jewish faith is deeply rooted in resilience. Judaism always gives us a way to get back up again when we feel that our environment is bringing us down, through the values of our texts and their constant journey to the Promised Land, through the support of our communities, through the hopefulness for the future symbolised in our Sukkah and those lovely photos in the Jewish press of our community’s children waving the lulav with big smiles on their faces.