“Succot: The message of a paradoxical festival”
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
One of the perennial questions asked is, if Succot commemorates the journeying of the Israelites in the desert, why is it celebrated in the run-up to Autumn, and not in Nisan when the Israelites commenced their journeying?
The stock answer is because Nisan is the time when, in any case, the ancient Israelite farmers made booths to shelter them from midday sun. To built succot as that time, therefore, would not be indicative that it was miztvat ha-borei, a ritual performed specifically in response to the divine command. So, strangely, we have to perform this ritual at a time when it is not strictly relevant to its seasonal and historical context. And this makes Succot, especially in the West, something of an anomaly. Most years we have to vacate our Succot, because the Autumn rains have set in with a vengeance. What an irony: We construct a booth whose symbolic meaning is the antithesis of our own experience. It is meant to be a structure indicative of God having afforded protection to our ancestors against the burning heat, and instead we freeze and feel the dampness. Does this not make a laughing-stock of our ritual?
If we think that, then we miss the essential characteristic of this entire festival. Because this is truly a festival shot through with paradox, with tension between the real and the ideal.
This is the festival of the inhospitable desert experience where day is unbearably hot and night unbearably cold. The desert is not a place of consistency, but of severe contrast. It is a place of transience. A place to traverse, only in case of dire necessity. It is not a place were anyone, other than nomadic Bedouin, would choose to practice the usual norms of hospitality. Yet, paradoxically, this is the festival of hospitality, par excellence, when we not only welcome our own friends to our Succah, but when hospitality becomes a veritable ritual, extending over the entirety of the festival in the form of the Ushpizin, the formal invitation each night to the various fathers of our nation to come and join us as our guests. What could be more paradoxical than that?
And then there is the inconsistency of the Four Species, on the one hand, and the Succah on the other. The four species are reminiscent of the settled agricultural life, the holding aloft of the four species is a celebratory indication of prosperity, of the rich harvest coming as a deserved climax to a year’s investment of money, time and energy in one’s own ancestral land; whereas the Succah is the symbol, par excellence, of the transient life, a life of rootlessness and deprivation, of people totally exposed to innumerable dangers.
A similar paradox underlies the basic celebration of Succot as Chag ha-Asif, ‘the festival of the in-gathering’ and the living in Succah booths. Asif means ‘in-gathering,’ bringing that which is outside, inside, bringing in the harvest from an exposed area to a covered, dry and protected place; whereas the use of the succah involves the act of moving from inside outside, from our solid, protected, cosy and permanent residences to a temporary, exposed and cramped dwelling.
So it is quite appropriate that this festival of paradox should be celebrated in a paradoxical manner, and that we should sit in a summerhouse not at the beginning of the dry and sunny season of Nisan, but at the beginning of the wet season of Tishri.
It symbolises the topsy-turvy world that we inhabit, and it reflects so accurately the unpredictable nature of our human existence, wherein just at times when we seem to be riding on the crest of a wave, basking in a summer of success, a July of joy, just then fate does a sudden u-turn and we find ourselves experiencing a winter of discontent, adversity or ill-health. And conversely, it so often happens that no sooner have we been plunged into the stormy sea of setbacks and sorrows, and touched rock bottom, when we suddenly feel ourselves being transported and soaring from the depths to the surface, keeping our heads above water, filling our lungs with the fresh air of new hope, new expectation and future success. It is naïve to think that ‘life is a cabaret, my friends.’ If we have to stretch the theatrical simile, life is like a radio comedy; it doesn’t always follow the script. Or, as someone else put it, ‘life is fragile; handle with prayer.’
And what could be more paradoxical than the halachic quirk of this festival, mitzta’eir patur min ha-succah, that ‘one who is uncomfortable while sitting in the succah is absolved from performing the mitzvah. Since when was religion meant to be comfortable? I have more than once quoted the maxim that religion is not only to comfort the troubled, but also to trouble the comfortable.
And what about the paradox at the root of the biblical book that accompanies this festival, the book of Kohelet, a chronicle of the musings of a king, according to tradition King Solomon, a man, born into power and privilege, who enjoyed all the luxuries of life and didn’t have a care in the world, and yet he is beset with mental anguish, with depression about the state of the world, about the inconsistencies inherent in life, and its transient nature, about the inability of man to find true fulfilment in anything he undertakes, about the ethereal nature of fame and power, about the blurring of boundaries between folly and wisdom, about the conundrum of the frequent suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked, and, more fundamentally, about the apparent arbitrariness that seems to underpin our world, and the myriad natural and man-made disasters that man is heir to, all of which present insuperable challenges to faith. The author, Kohelet, is in a paradoxical situation as regards his own life and station, and he is preoccupied and weighed down with the general paradoxes of life.
And what about the paradox inherent in the rabbinic tradition that describes this festival, on the one hand, as Zeman simchateinu, ‘a season of celebration,’ and yet, at the very same time, declares that it is also a period of din, of judgement for the world, for nature, for rain, for the crops.
So let us not be surprised at the paradox of Succot’s celebration apparently ‘at the wrong season,’ at the fact that the Torah declares it as a commemoration of the 40 years the Hebrews travelled through the desert, requiring shade from the burning sun, whereas its agricultural significance, as a festival of ingathering, required it to be placed at a time when the cooler weather was beginning to set in.
Succot teaches us a simple lesson about life, namely that its challenge, its richness and its fascination reside precisely in the fact of its paradoxical nature and its unpredictability; that, in consequence, we should never take life at face value; that we should luxuriate in it but be vigilant and plan for its treachery. But, by the same token, we should know that, even when we are cast in the role of life’s victim, tomorrow we can find ourselves celebrating our triumphs. This is the meaning of the Talmudic prescription, Kesheim shemevarchim al ha-tov kakh mevarchim al ha-ra, ‘Just as one blesses God for the good, so must one bless Him for the bad.’ Succot teaches that there is neither good or bad. There is life. And its experiences are an amalgam of both. Both are necessary for our moral and ethical growth and development. In the words of Kohelet: Et ha-kol asah yafeh b’itto, ‘He has made everything beautiful at its appropriate time.’