The roof­less hut that is stronger than a cas­tle

In th­ese tur­bu­lent times, Suc­cot shows us why we still have cause to cel­e­brate, says Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

WHAT AN era ours is. Iran is in pur­suit of nu­clear weapons, threat­en­ing to de­stroy Is­rael. The world seems sud­denly full of rogue states, failed states, civil wars and ubiq­ui­tous ter­ror. Fi­nan­cial mar­kets are in tur­moil. Rarely in my life­time has the global eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal fu­ture seemed less pre­dictable. Ours is the age of un­cer­tainty.

What has this to do with Suc­cot? Ev­ery­thing. Suc­cot is the fes­ti­val of un­cer­tainty. It’s about how the Is­raelites lived in the desert for 40 years, without a land, a home, a place of safety, ex­posed to the el­e­ments and en­e­mies.

It is one of the most re­mark­able fea­tures of Ju­daism that we have no fes­ti­val to mark the en­try of the Is­raelites into their land, none to mark the end of their bat­tles in the days of Joshua, none to mark the day King David made Jerusalem Is­rael’s cap­i­tal 3,000 years ago. We are a peo­ple who re­mem­ber not the ar­rival but the jour­ney. We are the peo­ple who learned to cel­e­brate in the midst of dan­ger. We are the only peo­ple I know who could name the fes­ti­val of un­cer­tainty ze­man sim­chatenu, “the time of our joy”.

There is an ar­gu­ment in the Tal­mud about Suc­cot, os­ten­si­bly mi­nor, but ac­tu­ally one of the most sig­nif­i­cant in Jewish thought. The sages asked what ex­actly the suc­cah rep­re­sents. There were two con­flict­ing views, those of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, both of whom lived in the late first and early sec­ond cen­tury.

Ac­cord­ing to Rabbi Eliezer, the suc­cah rep­re­sents the clouds of glory that ac­com­pa­nied the Is­raelites on their jour­ney, shel­ter­ing them from the heat of the day, the cold of the night, and the slings and ar­rows of their ad­ver­saries.

Rabbi Akiva, how­ever, says the suc­cah rep­re­sents it­self, noth­ing more. It sym­bol­ises no di­vine mir­a­cle, no su­per­nat­u­ral force, no su­per­hu­man pro­tec­tion. Our an­ces­tors spent years liv­ing in tem­po­rary dwellings, and so do we, in their mem­ory. A suc­cah is a shed without a roof, not a sym­bol of the clouds of glory.

Rabbi Eliezer’s view is sim­ple and log­i­cal. Each of the fes­ti­vals re­calls a mir­a­cle, an in­ter­ven­tion of God in his­tory: on Pe­sach the ex­o­dus, on Shavuot the rev­e­la­tion at Mount Si­nai, and on Suc­cot, the way God pro­tected His peo­ple in the wilder­ness years.

Ac­cord­ing to Rabbi Akiva, though, why do we cel­e­brate Suc­cot? Be­cause our an­ces­tors lived in shacks? There is noth­ing out of the or­di­nary in this. So does ev­ery desert dweller. Some Be­douin still do. What kind of fes­ti­val did Rabbi Akiva be­lieve Suc­cot to be?

Rabbi Akiva was say­ing some­thing very rad­i­cal in­deed, as he of­ten did. What in­spired him was a stun­ningly un­usual verse in the book of Jeremiah. Read the To­rah and you get a deeply neg­a­tive im­pres­sion of the Is­raelites in the wilder­ness. They com­plained about ev­ery­thing: the food, the wa­ter, the dan­ger, the dis­com­fort. At times they even said, “Let’s go back to Egypt”. One could al­most be tempted, read­ing this story, to say, “How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews.”

Jeremiah says some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent in the name of God. “I re­mem­ber the kind­ness of your youth, the love of your be­trothal, how you were will­ing to fol­low Me into the desert, into an un­sown land.” Jeremiah an­swers the ques­tion: why did God choose the Jewish peo­ple? Be­cause they were will­ing to take a risk, be­cause they had the courage to do what Abra­ham did when he first heard the call of God: be­gin a jour­ney, un­sure of the ob­sta­cles they might en­counter on the way, with no cer­tainty other than faith it­self that they would reach their des­ti­na­tion.

The Is­raelites staked their fu­ture on a Di­vine prom­ise. Yes, they were un­grate­ful, frac­tious, quar­rel­some, but they never gave up. More than 3,000 years later, hav­ing sur­vived some of the worst per­se­cu­tions ever in­flicted on a peo­ple, we still never give up. The stiff-necked peo­ple turned out to be the most tena­cious in his­tory.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva present us with two com­pletely dif­fer­ent views of faith. For Rabbi Eliezer, faith is cer­tainty. For Rabbi Akiva, faith is the courage to live with un­cer­tainty. It is easy to be­lieve in a God who sur­rounds you with clouds of glory. It is hard to be­lieve in a God who leads you into a wilder­ness with only His prom­ise to sus­tain you and a shack in which to live.

For 2,000 years, Jews in the di­as­pora lived in tem­po­rary dwellings, without power or pro­tec­tion, ex­posed to ev­ery pass­ing wind of anti-Jewish sen­ti­ment. Even in Is­rael, even to­day, Jews are ex­posed to risks no other na­tion would en­dure.

Y e t J e w i s h l i f e through­out the ages has been full of joy. That is the mir­a­cle.

To face risks with con­fi­dence and calm, to know that life is full of un­cer­tainty yet still to cel­e­brate: that is the spe­cial gift of Ju­daism, ex­em­pli­fied by Suc­cot. You do not need to live be­neath clouds of glory to cel­e­brate God, said Rabbi Akiva.

Faith can live in the most frag­ile of tem­po­rary dwellings, but it is stronger than em­pires and longer-last­ing than cas­tles. Faith does not need clouds of glory to pro­tect us from fear, or mir­a­cles to change the course of his­tory.

Faith it­self is a mir­a­cle, and its sym­bol is a hut without a roof.


Fes­tive al-fresco: rais­ing a toast at the ‘sea­son of our joy’ in a suc­cah in West Hamp­stead, Lon­don

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