This week’s Torah portion (Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot) is Exodus 33:12-34:26.
The three festivals we celebrate are powerful connectors of the Jewish people across time and space.
Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot each provide essential connections for us in the world of land and food. But each carries a powerful connection with God through our history as well.
Most of us get the historical connection more easily. After all, our shared history and experience binds us together as we remember what our ancestors did long ago. But just as powerful is our own personal memory of what our own parents and grandparents did: building sukkot at home or synagogue; touching, waving, inhaling lulav and etrog; all the sights, smells and sounds of Passover seder preparation; tasting special foods of the various seasons; gazing at lights kindled just for the festival; taking in the taste of wine or juice for Kiddush.
These sensory experiences shape our consciousness and form our Jewish hearts.
The agricultural aspect we appreciate only from an emotional distance. Of course, we are deeply grateful for the food that sustains us and the forces of nature that make that food possible. But, unlike farmers an hour away, we don’t check rain charts daily, fret over soil conditions or tear our hair out over grubs or animals that threaten our crops.
In the Jewish year which we have just begun, we who live in cities are much less aware that Sukkot gives thanks for the fall harvest and the beginning of the season of rain. Many don’t realize that Pesach began the spring planting season and just as few appreciate the spring harvest celebrated at Shavuot.
No, we are bound to the meaning of our history and the experiences we share to cement consciousness of it. At Sukkot we remember how God cared for us 40 years in the wilderness. At Pesach, we highlight our wonderful passage to freedom from slavery. Shavuot commemorates our immortal meeting with God at Mount Sinai to receive Torah.
But historical memory is as fragile as agricultural awareness if it is not relived on a regular basis. I may not realize how amazing it is to have food from the earth precisely because I didn’t grow it. And if I don’t build a sukkah, hold lulav and etrog, wave them in all directions and inhale the powerful aroma of the etrog, then my hold on these connections will grow weaker.
In many Jewish disputes, we like to take both sides, to say “both/and” instead or “either/or.” We could say that both are essential to Jewish awareness and continued vitality. We need to embrace our connections with the sacred land and God’s presence in history.
In Israel, the early kibbutzim made a conscious decision to embrace the land and not the theology of Jewish history. For us, we connect to our story, not as much God’s bounty from the earth.
But what if we give up both? How can Judaism or the Jewish people continue on without grasping the rituals, practices and experiences that cement our connections as Jews?
It is my fantasy that these words might be read with interest and concern — while sitting in a sukkah this season.
Moadim l’simcha! May the festivals be for joy!
Rabbi James A. Gibson is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh. This originally ran in The Jewish Chronicle.