This year, the month of October starts the day after Yom Kippur. So, the Days of Awe – yamim nora’im – are behind us, and the season of our rejoicing – z’man simchateinu – is about to begin. With Sukkot, just five days after Yom Kippur, traditionally, one begins erecting the sukkah immediately after the fast goes out. This year, with Yom Kippur falling on Shabbat, Sunday will be the perfect day to start sukkah-building!
Sukkot is a complex festival. The first rabbis referred to it as z’man simchateinu because the Torah teaches that ‘You shall rejoice – u’s’machtem – before the Eternal your God seven days’ (Emor, Leviticus 23:40). In the days of our agricultural forebears, it marked the last harvest of the year and so was also known as Chag Ha-Asif, ‘Feast of Ingathering’ (Ki Tissa, Exodus 34:22). So, Sukkot is a time to celebrate the fruits of the land. As we remember our ancestors’ 40 years of wilderness wandering (Lev. 23:43), it is also the time for acknowledging the fragility of life and our dependence, both, on the Eternal, and more immediately on the elements: too much rain and the crops become waterlogged; too much sun and they are scorched. And so, the sukkah, with its spaces in the s’khakh – the covering of branches – does not offer complete shelter. Just as life is transient, so the sukkah is temporary and insubstantial. Just as life brings hardship and pain as well as blessings, so the sukkah is, both, open to the storms, and a locus of celebration. And as we take the lulav in our hands – the etrog, (large lemon-like fruit), the palm branch, three myrtle twigs and two willow branches – to ‘rejoice’ in the festival (Lev. 23: 40), we also waive it eastwards, southwards, westwards and northwards, towards the sky and towards the earth, in acknowledgement of the world and the vast universe beyond.
Since the synagogue does not have an outside area, everyone is invited once again to Jess’ and my home to waive the lulav and sit in the sukkah on Erev Sukkot, Wednesday, 4 October at 7 PM. We will also eat together, so, please bring a vegetarian or permitted fish dish and/or desert to share. On the last day of Sukkot, there will be another shared meal – again with our edible contributions – this time at the synagogue on Wednesday, 11 October at Noon, when there will be another opportunity to waive the lulav.
In Temple times, the autumn festivals period concluded with Sh’mini Atzeret, the ‘Eighth [day] of Closure’, following the seven days of Sukkot (Lev. 23:36). The fixing of the calendar at the time of the sage Hillel II in Babylonia, around 360 CE, led in time to the reading of the Torah in an annual cycle, and the addition of a new festival, Simchat Torah, celebrating the completion of the cycle each year. So, at Simchat Torah, we read the last parashah, V’zot Ha-b’rakhah, which recounts the death of Moses, and then the first parashah, B’reishit, which opens with the creation of the world. Within Progressive Judaism – that is, the Liberal and Reform movements – Simchat Torah is marked on Sh’mini Atzeret, and not on an additional day.
At Simchat Torah this year, we will be honouring two individuals in recognition of their contribution to the life of the congregation. David Selo, who offers his services as a warden, has become one of the anchors of Open Wednesdays, and represents the congregation at the Board of Deputies, will be our Chatan Torah, ‘Bridegroom of the Torah’. Our Kallat B’reishit, ‘Bride of the Beginning’ will be Leslie Burns, who for several years has taken responsibility for the shul’s PR, including Facebook and Twitter, and who, until recently, for several years, was responsible for the weekly E-bulletin. The service will begin at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, 11 October, and will be followed by kiddush. As usual, we will be unwinding the entire scroll around the synagogue after we read from the last portion, and then roll it back to the beginning again. To do this, we will need plenty people to hold it up – so do come along and share in the fun!
With Simchat Torah, we will complete the autumn festivals as a congregation. I would like to take this opportunity to thank, on behalf of us all, those who have worked behind the scenes in the office, the wardens, choir, lay readers, security people, those involved with the Shabbatots and the Beit Lameid, all those who have helped in the kitchen, and everyone, who has given their time and energies to make this sacred season so special for all of us. Todah Rabbah! – and Chag Samei’ach! Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah