Succot's spirit of thanksgiving

By John Sentamu, October 5, 2012
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"We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground…" This is the time of year when succahs are built, lulavs are waved and, in churches and schools across the country, tins of baked beans and other produce are collected and distributed. What a fantastic time of celebration!

This year, the festivals of Succot and Harvest are being celebrated together in a special way: 2012 has been designated "A Year of Service", with support from the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Building on the inspiring work of Mitzvah Day, different religious communities in Britain have been encouraged to join together in acts of service connected with special days in their religious calendars. Zoroastrians joined Buddhists, Baha'is and others in a project for the elderly on their spring festival of Nowruz.

Different religious communities joined mosques during Ramadan this summer running community iftars (fast-breaking meals) and making food hampers for the hungry. And now at this joint occasion of Harvest and Succot, Jewish and Christian communities are working together on projects relating to our shared tradition of giving food to the hungry.

Our festival of harvest has come in for criticism

Speaking as an Archbishop in the Church of England, I find that our festival of harvest has come in for some criticism. Some people argue that it is merely a romantic Victorian invention that has no meaning for city folk. Today's urban believers rarely, if ever, "plough the fields and scatter" but rather click on a picture of a sliced loaf online before it is delivered to their door in a plastic bag. In a context like this, looking as a Christian to the Jewish celebration of Succot can be very helpful.

The way that Succot is celebrated, literally and structurally, builds thanksgiving into the families and communities who celebrate this "season of our rejoicing". It strengthens my conviction as a Christian that a feast of thanksgiving has a rightful and proper place in our calendar, whatever its particular, modern origins in the church.

When I see a succah in someone's garden or on their balcony, I am reminded that, however distant from our harvest we think we are, and however much we take for granted the food on our tables, we are still very fragile. Like the succah, we are more affected by the weather and by nature than we sometimes care to admit. I am very aware, for example, of the difficult times that many of our farmers are having this year and how we need to support them.

Even with our fragility, the waving of the lulav and etrog reminds us that "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it". As they are waved and blessings are said in all directions, I am encouraged to trust and not to be afraid.

For me, there is huge value in the sharing of our heritage of faith. Our deep roots together need to be cherished and explored, and the many people and organisations who help us with this are to be commended and supported, such as the Council of Christians and Jews. What is doubly encouraging is when Jewish and Christian communities up and down the country not just celebrate together but also work together for the common good of all, as this special "Year of Service" is encouraging us to do.

If this is happening in your community, then I urge you to join in. If not, then maybe it is something that you could think about next year? By joining in, we can not only share the good deed but we can build a stronger understanding of each other and create stronger communities for the future.

In any case, may I wish readers of the Jewish Chronicle Chag Sameach!

Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York

Last updated: 9:45am, October 5 2012