Why we go camp­ing with our best china

Suc­cot of­fers a healthy bal­ance be­tween en­joy­ing our com­forts and re­mem­ber­ing those who do not have them, says Rabbi Gideon Sylvester

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

‘HOW CAN you watch heart-rend­ing scenes of the con­torted bodies of starv­ing peo­ple dy­ing in Africa, then switch off the tele­vi­sion, pour your­self a cup of co­coa and go off to bed, obliv­i­ous to ev­ery­thing you have just seen?” The chal­lenge of bal­anc­ing a well-at­tuned con­science with the hum­drum of day-to-day life was first put to me by my his­tory teacher, Mr Neville Ire­land and it has haunted me ever since.

He sug­gested that fo­cus­ing on the ter­ri­ble im­ages beamed into our liv­ing rooms each night could leave us to­tally trau­ma­tised, so we should be grate­ful for the bless­ing of for­get­ful­ness, which frees us to go about our daily lives without be­ing driven in­sane by tragic sto­ries from around the world.

His point made a lot of sense, but how do we square it with Ju­daism’s un­com­pro­mis­ing de­mands for in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty? The To­rah does not like us to for­get im­por­tant things, call­ing on us to fo­cus in­tensely on our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to God and hu­man­ity. As King David said, “I place God al­ways be­fore me” (Psalms 16: 8), ren­dered into con­tem­po­rary id­iom by Rabbi Chaim Broven­der as “There are no Sun­days in Di­vine jus­tice” — no breaks from the un­remit­ting task of serv­ing God, keep­ing his laws and mend­ing the world.

Par­tic­u­larly at this, the most in­tense pe­riod of the Jewish year, mod­ern Jews face the chal­lenge of bal­anc­ing our need to live full, au­then­tic Jewish lives without slip­ping into re­li­gious fa­nati­cism or los­ing our grasp on the world around us.

As the Fast of Yom Kip­pur ends, Jews turn into builders, con­struct­ing tem­po­rary shelters and roof­ing them with a thick layer of leaves. If the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur seemed in­tense, the mitz­vah of the suc­cah was re­garded by Cha­sidic rab­bis as all-en­com­pass­ing. From the mo­ment we en­ter our booth, we are lit­er­ally sur­rounded by it — im­mersed in the ful­fil­ment of a Di­vine com­mand. Wher­ever pos­si­ble, we are ex­pected to eat, sleep, study and live in the suc­cah through­out the fes­ti­val.

So Suc­cot drives us out of our com­fort zones, plac­ing us in the prim­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment of a shaky shel- ter. Liv­ing so close to the el­e­ments, we are able to ex­pe­ri­ence a lit­tle of the fragility of life and fo­cus on our con­nec­tion to Jewish his­tory, na­ture, hu­man­ity and God; re­call­ing the phys­i­cal shelters that we built on the jour­ney from Egypt to the Promised Land and the Di­vine pro­tec­tion we re­ceived along the way.

While the suc­cah is a very ba­sic, tran­sient struc­ture, there is one law about it which jars. We are com­manded to adorn it with our finest ta­ble cloths and china, mak­ing our meals there just as dig­ni­fied and aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing as they would be if they were served in the warmth and com­fort of our houses (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 639: 1). This sur­real ha­lachah sends us out camp­ing in tiny, tem­po­rary shacks with sil­ver can­dle­sticks on the ta­ble.

Per­haps it is pre­cisely this nu­anced ap­proach that Ju­daism de­mands of us. It sends us out to an im­pro­vised shaky shel­ter to re­mind us of our hum­ble ori­gins and to draw our at­ten­tion to the fact that while many of us cur­rently en­joy the com­forts of moder­nity, we live just a hair’s breadth from catas­tro­phe. For some, those lessons were ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand in the calami­ties of nat­u­ral dis­as­ter, re­ces­sion and an­ti­semitic regimes. Liv­ing in the suc­cah for a week brings the rest of us a lit­tle closer to their suf­fer­ing and re­minds us of our moral and phys­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the world.

But it seems there are re­li­gious and psy­cho­log­i­cal lim­its to the ad­vis­abil­ity of sim­u­lat­ing the pain of oth­ers or en­gag­ing in self-af­flic­tion. Rabbi Kook, the Chief Rabbi of pre-state Is­rael sug­gested that Suc­cot was placed just five days af­ter Yom Kip­pur to coun­ter­bal­ance some of the in­ten­sity of the High Holy Day pe­riod. He com­pared re­pen­tance to chemo­ther­apy; the pow­er­ful med­i­cal treat­ment which heals our bodies by de­stroy­ing harm­ful cells. Iron­i­cally, this medicine which is so es­sen­tial for tackling dis­ease also at­tacks healthy cells leav­ing the pa­tient weak and frail. Like­wise, al­though Yom Kip­pur as­sists us in re­pent­ing for our mis­deeds, and aton­ing for our fail­ures, un­less the process is han­dled with sen­si­tiv­ity, it can crush our self-es­teem, deny­ing us the self­con­fi­dence to make our con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety.

Suc­cot, with its theme of per­sonal and na­tional hap­pi­ness, off­sets some of the painful in­tro­spec­tion of the pre­ced­ing days. It re­minds us of the pos­si­bil­ity of joy and con­tent­ment even as we work to mend an im­per­fect world. So our sim­ple shacks are decked out as hand­somely as pos­si­ble and filled with fes­tiv­ity, cel­e­brat­ing the gift of life and pos­si­bil­ity of close­ness to God.

One of Amos Oz’s char­ac­ters warns that, “If your whole life is de­voted to the sanc­tity of life, then that’s not life, its death”. Ju­daism re­jects that model of sanc­tity. The pur­suit of ho­li­ness does not re­quire a rar­i­fied life of iso­la­tion­ist con­tem­pla­tion, angst or bit­ter­ness. True, it de­mands to­tal ded­i­ca­tion to God’s laws. Mitzvot like the suc­cah raise our aware­ness of the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers and our com­mit­ment to heal­ing the world. But we per­form them while ap­pre­ci­at­ing the beauty of God’s cre­ation, sur­rounded by fam­ily and friends at de­light­ful, fes­tive meals. In that way, Suc­cot teaches us to reach a healthy men­tal bal­ance be­tween our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to God, hu­man­ity and our­selves.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Syn­a­gogue’s Tribe Is­rael

Cel­e­brat­ing Suc­cot in style at the UJIA’s “Suc­cah in the City” in Lon­don

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