MORE TREES IN THE FOREST.
Our forefathers didn’t know about high-rise buildings or information technology. Theirs was an agricultural civilisation centred around the sun and the seasons, the plants and the trees, the animals and the leaves.
They didn’t have our achievements, but nor did they have our anxieties. But their worries on a human level were clones of ours – or was it the other way round?
God didn’t command them about material or scientific concerns but about how to live with each other. Symbols of society told them what to do, and all these centuries later the ethical agenda has not changed.
Building a sukkah that waves in the wind tells us, as it told them, not to measure achievement in material but spiritual terms. Taking four plants that look and smell radically different from each other tells us, as it told them, that it takes all sorts to create a society. Nobody matters more than anyone else in the eyes of God.
Saying these things sounds like mere Motherhood but actually it is immensely topical with a resurgent religion that thinks the Pope should become a Muslim and the world should be under their domination. Jews are under threat, Christians too. It’s all said in the name of God.
The question is whether anyone has asked God for His opinion. It is likely that He would quote the Hebrew prophet who said,
“Has not one God created us all?” Can’t there be a range of trees in the forest?
DREAMING WITHOUT SLEEPING.
In relation to Sukkot the Torah says,
“You shall rejoice before the Lord for seven days” (Lev. 23:40).
The Festival of the Water-Drawing – “Simchat Beit Hashoavah”
” – was a leading feature of the festival in ancient days, and a Talmudic sage remarked,
“When we celebrated the Festival of the Water-Drawing we never saw sleep in our eyes” (Suk. 13).
The celebration was so absorbing that no-one could think of sleep. Later, the participants probably crashed, as we say these days. But in the meantime sleep would have been a luxury.
We all know people who never seem to need sleep. They can keep going day and night with apparently inexhaustible energy.
I read of a certain rabbi who could dream without sleeping; his visions of things that could, should and had to be done maintained him on a constant high.
Not everyone can be like that, but it must be said that many lack the excitement and challenge to dream dreams for the betterment of society, and their boredom and lack of purpose lead them to escape by sleeping for longer than their bodies really require.
Sleep when you need to – but don’t forget to dream whilst you are awake.
GOOD TREES, LEAFY TREES.
Identifying the Four Plants has never been easy. The Torah requires us to take on Sukkot “the fruit of a goodly (‘hadar’) tree, date-palm fronds, a bough of a leafy tree and the willows of the brook” (Lev. 23:40). The date-palm fronds and the willows are the easiest to identify. But what is the meaning of the “goodly tree” and the “leafy tree”?
The sages reasoned that the goodly tree had to be the citron (etrog), since both the tree and its fruit were pleasant to the eye. This excluded, for example, the pomegranate, since its fruit was beautiful but the tree was not. Nor could it be the carob tree, since the tree was impressive but not the fruit.
How about the “leafy tree”? Many trees in Eretz Yisra’el were leafy. The rabbinic sages said the leaves had to cover the trunk, which did not apply for example to the olive tree. The sages identified the leafy tree with the myrtle. They saw too that – apart from the technical requirements of the text – the myrtle was especially versatile in that it contributes a range of products to the medicinal well-being of the human race.
In the view of Maimonides, the Four Plants not only teach us the ethical lesson that all types are part of the community, but historically they demonstrate that the chosen plants are symbols of leaving the desert behind and entering the fertile Land.
Samson Raphael Hirsch regards the Four Plants as representative of the main four categories of vegetation, so that a Jew who takes the Four Plants testifies that the whole world belongs to God.
IT’S ALL VERY SWEET.
Sukkot and Pesach are the fragrant festivals. The scent of the sukkah is only paralleled by that of the Seder. On both occasions you can smell that it’s yom-tov.
Sukkot is even superior to Pesach, because day and night for seven days it is possible to enjoy the aroma of the sukkah whilst the Seder, for all its magnificence, is only two nights a year. Both, however, help to make Judaism a religion that not only inspires the heart and stretches the mind but gladdens the body.
As sources of fragrance they are joined by additional aspects of Judaism. The Temple in ancient Jerusalem had its incense and other means of producing a sweet smell. Every Shabbat and festival the Jewish home is redolent of culinary delights. At the end of Shabbat the Havdalah provides a last opportunity until next week to savour the sweetness of the day of rest.
(On a more mundane level, it is said that a yeshiva class in London was once studying the laws of the b’rachot when one student asked the teacher, “What blessing do I say if I smell a rat?” and the class was summarily dismissed.)
Mount Moriah is so called, according to one view, because it was the mountain of “mor” – the spice myrrh (see Rashi on Gen. 22:2). The Psalmist prays that his prayer may be set before God as sweet-smelling incense (Psalm 141:2). The Midrash says that at each word that God spoke on Sinai, spices filled the world. The question was asked,
“Why is Shabbat food so delicious?”
and the answer was given,
“Because of a spice called Shabbat”.
Every good deed creates extra fragrance in the world.
All this displays the Jewish value system. What really matters are prayer, Torah learning, Shabbat and good deeds not only because they are commanded, because they are good in themselves, because they are marks of Jewish identity, but because they make the world a more pleasant place.
Editor’s note: An account of Simchat Beit Hashoavah at ‘MyJewishLearning‘
This is a festival I have never heard of. Very interesting.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.