Sukkot 5782/2021 Sermon – Joyful juggling Rabbis

The life of a Rabbi is a constant juggle, a joyful one but a juggle nevertheless.   You need to be fully available when pastoral care is needed for any aspect of life from birth to bereavement and yet also working hard and busily to develop your community, running events and classes at particular times that deepen Judaism.  You need to be both busy and committed and available and present.   You need to be playful with young people and have gravitas for the adults.   You need to be creative and innovative and yet uphold time honoured traditions in worship and minhag.  It’s a joyful juggle!

Our earliest Rabbis were excellent jugglers – and presumably had to do this figurative juggling too.    But it turns out, as we learned last night, in Mishnah and Talmud Sukkot (51a-53a) that they some of the most famous Rabbis were expert physical jugglers too.

This used to be demonstrated in Israel and the Diaspora every Sukkot, in the middle days of the festival.   In Jerusalem it too place at the ‘house of the water drawing’ – a famous well where people would gather to celebrate with wild abandon.  Sukkot is the festival at the hoped for start of the rainy season in Israel, so water was a natural feature of the celebration.

Juggling was a way of expressing profound joy and during the Simchat Beit HaShoeva, several very distinguished and learned rabbis were known for their juggling: Shmuel bar Abba, Levi bar Sissa and Abaye in Babylonia for example. But the best-known was Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin (Talmudic High Court), who was known for his amazing ability to juggle eight torches at once…which happened to be on fire! He would throw them in the air in a special pattern so that they never touched each other. He was also known for his crazy acrobatics, including a headstand where he would kiss the ground and raise himself back up again. The Gemara, the Talmud, also relates that Reb Levi used to juggle eight knives in front of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and Shmuel would juggle eight full glasses of wine, without spilling a drop. Rav Rabba would watch Rav Abaye juggle eight eggs. It’s no wonder that in the words of Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania, “For all the days of the water drawing, our eyes saw no sleep.” They didn’t want to miss the show!  (Sara Levine, Jew in the City 19/10/2016)

If you go to Mea Shearim in Jerusalem this week or Crown Heights in New York you would find many of the Chadisdic sects holding their own Simchat Beit HaShoeva – wild celebrations of the Joy this festival of Sukkot brings.  There are many You Tube videos of dancing hats and beards to tell us that this tradition continues.

This festival, Sukkot is called Zman Simchateinu – the time of our happiness. At the end of the Musaf service we say Ashernu, mah tov helkenu, u mah naim goraleninu – how happy we are, how good our heritage and how pleasant our lives today.   But what have we got to be happy about?

The pandemic still keeps our activities in check with restricted numbers, places we can’t travel to, terrible waiting lists for healthcare due to the disruption in hospitals.  There aren’t enough truck drivers to deliver the goods we want to buy to the supermarket.  Gas prices are so high that they can’t make enough carbon dioxide for packaging and fizzy drinks.   Oy vey is mir!

But that’s the point of Sukkot.   For Jewish communities down the millennia this festival has, exactly as our second Torah portion said (Deuteronomy 28:1-6), reminded us every year to count our blessings and rejoice in them.

We live at a time and in a place of food security, none of us will go hungry this year.   We have a roof over our head and will get through the winter safe and well.   Many of us are able to enjoy the comfort of loving relationships with partners, children, siblings and grandchildren and for all of us we can enjoy the love that comes back to us from our Synagogue community, our shul family.   We live in warmth and we live in safety.  We are blessed.

As the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiates, the Megillah for Sukkot says to us anything more than this might be lovely at the time but ultimately it is vanity.  Sukkot stands for the principle that we can and must all live with joy and with appreciation for the basic things in life – water, food and shelter, however flimsy – and most importantly a community that we put our time into and which puts time into us for the expected and the unexpected.

The Torah talks about Sukkot directly three times, once in Exodus where it is a harvest festival only, once in Leviticus, as we heard where it is both a harvest festival, with the Lulav and Etrog as a tool of celebration and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, due to the Sukkahs that we build.  The third time is in the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 16.   This time we assume that we have come into the land of Israel and built our homes and planted our fields, like we have here in London.  Then the command is added to.   It says you should be all joyful on this festival, celebrating what you can in your life and most importantly sharing that celebration with the stranger, the orphan and the widow.

That is what Jewish joy is all about – sharing, caring, celebrating, looking after the vulnerable.  I’m alright Jack is not the root of joy on Sukkot.  This festival comes right after Yom Kippur to remind us that we have plenty to be grateful for and that the more we share it the more it will make us glad.   From what we are collecting here at EHRS for Afghan refugees to the efforts we make to be fully in contact with our community and to help each other in times of trouble, to the Sukkah which shows what we can build together in a few hours – our task is to spread the joy of life.

Wishing you truly a Chag Sameach and that you can gain that happiness by appreciating the blessings you live with and share.