Having survived the Yamim Noraim, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we get this special holiday of Sukkot. If the Yamim Noraim are about teshuva and atonement, Sukkot is about pure joy. Sukkot is our harvest festival, a time to rejoice since the food for the season has been stored in and we are ready for whatever the winter may bring. Sukkot is the Thanksgiving of the Jewish calendar. A time to reflect on what we are grateful for in life.
One of the things I learned during my year in Israel for Rabbinical School, is that unlike every other harvest festival, Sukkot is designed to be observed after the end of the harvest, long after the last of the produce has been sent away. We think of county fairs where we bring the best of the harvest to be judged and admired by the public. Sukkot happens after the last of these fairs has closed and everyone has gone home. Only then do we erect our Sukkot and eat our meals in their shade.
I think the story of Sukkot, coming after the harvest, is the story of what fall and winter mean in our lives. Sure we like the beautiful leaves and the fall flowers. But we also know that the time has come to prepare for the winter that lies ahead. The phrase “winter is coming” is not just an introduction to the HBO series, “Game of Thrones”; it is a reality of life. A reality that requires preparation to avoid some inconvenience and what could be a whole lot of trouble.
After we will come inside from our Sukkot, we will have to put storm doors on our home to keep out the cold and hold in the heat. Storm windows will also have to be put in place replacing the screens that have let this beautiful fall weather into our homes. Furnaces must be checked, gutters have to be cleaned, even the beautiful leaves must be cleaned up lest they block up the storm drainage we will need over the winter. Pipes have to be drained; lawns and flower beds need to be treated before the snow arrives. Firewood needs to be gathered and chimneys inspected. And, by the way, have you gotten your flu shot yet?
As Samantha Bee noted, Mother Nature is clearly trying to kill us off.
We can’t eliminate winter; we just had two giant hurricanes each with a power that is exponentially stronger than any nuclear bomb that humans have made. Nature is not a force we can just push around. Nature pushes us around and we need to be ready to face the onslaught of whatever the winter may bring.
So, we have to ask the question, what is the use of winter? What does it do to the world that is so important? We could avoid it by moving to Florida where we will be safe ….. Umm….. How do you choose between blizzard/Nor’easter and Hurricane? Either way you take your chances with Mother Nature.
There is an amazing process that the world goes through as it transitions from autumn to winter. All the animals put their own winter plans into effect. Storing up food, preparing a place to hibernate. The trees, too, drop their leaves so the storms of winter will not do catastrophic damage to their branches and boughs. The world enters a time of suspended animation and during this time of sleep, nature renews itself in preparation for the spring.
Fires have burned in the western parts of this country destroying millions of acres of forests. Yet by spring, we will see the signs of rebirth in the burned-out lands. Floods have inundated coastal Texas but by spring, grass and flowers will return. Snow will blanket us for God only knows how long this winter, but it will be gone as the days grow longer and warmer. In the charred wood, in the muddy debris, in the snow and ice, even in the food stored by animals in the fall, are the building blocks of Nature’s renewal in the spring.
So it is with all evil in the world. We are always thinking that we need to destroy evil; we need to rid the world of all that makes life dark and dangerous. But Judaism does not advocate the elimination of evil. On the Yamim Noraim, we don’t ask God to get rid of all the evil in the world. We do ask to have our sins, the times when we were not able to summon a correct response to evil, be forgiven and that we need to do better with our actions. But we never say that God should remove evil from our lives.
Broken bones are stronger in the places where they were once broken. Our lives are stronger when we are forced to confront the evil in the world. Great good grows from the bad habits we have to work so hard to confront. We believe that we are better because we have examined our lives over the past weeks and set a plan to live a better life in the future.
We have witnessed great hate in this world. From the Rohingya massacres of Myanmar to Charlottesville, Virginia. Can such hate be turned to the good? Can people who hate so deeply change in order to love others? We believe that people can change. We can change for the good. It is not easy. We leave behind resentments, pain, hurt and suffering. Our faith tells us that we can turn it all around and build compassion, love and trust again. Once we know how deeply we can hurt, we learn how deeply important it is to learn to love.
When I was working with Alcoholics and Drug abusers, one of the paths to recovery involved confession and seeking forgiveness. To bring evil to an end it is necessary to know exactly where we have gone wrong, exactly what we have done wrong and to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. This is one of the only ways to break the power of the addiction, to see and admit the damage we have done; only from the ashes of this confession can we grow the recovery that we seek.
Sukkot is a time of joy. We have made our confessions and we have attained forgiveness from both humans and God. Yes we are happy that there will be food for the winter, but we are even more joyful that we have been granted a new chance at life. It may not be fully set and sturdy. Like our Sukkot, it may provide only a flimsy protection from the perils of life, but it is a start, and we now know that we have the winter to prepare for the rebirth that springtime will bring.
My children used to watch a movie when they were small where they would sing, “From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.” From the ashes of our mistakes of the last year, we can begin to grow roses of kindness, caring and concern for each other. Good can grow out of evil. Change is always possible and winter will always melt into the next spring.
We should rejoice today, for we now have the opportunity to make tomorrow even better. May God help bring back the light to our darkest days as we say … Amen and Hag Sameach.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Thursday, October 5, 2017.