‘How can you watch heart-rending scenes of the contorted bodies of starving people dying in Africa, then switch off the television, pour yourself a cup of cocoa and go off to bed, oblivious to everything you have just seen?” The challenge of balancing a well-attuned conscience with the humdrum of day-to-day life was first put to me by my history teacher, Mr Neville Ireland and it has haunted me ever since.
He suggested that focusing on the terrible images beamed into our living rooms each night could leave us totally traumatised, so we should be grateful for the blessing of forgetfulness, which frees us to go about our daily lives without being driven insane by tragic stories from around the world.
His point made a lot of sense, but how do we square it with Judaism’s uncompromising demands for intellectual honesty? The Torah does not like us to forget important things, calling on us to focus intensely on our responsibilities to God and humanity. As King David said, “I place God always before me” (Psalms 16: 8), rendered into contemporary idiom by Rabbi Chaim Brovender as “There are no Sundays in Divine justice” — no breaks from the unremitting task of serving God, keeping his laws and mending the world.
Particularly at this, the most intense period of the Jewish year, modern Jews face the challenge of balancing our need to live full, authentic Jewish lives without slipping into religious fanaticism or losing our grasp on the world around us.
As the Fast of Yom Kippur ends, Jews turn into builders, constructing temporary shelters and roofing them with a thick layer of leaves. If the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seemed intense, the mitzvah of the succah was regarded by Chasidic rabbis as all-encompassing. From the moment we enter our booth, we are literally surrounded by it —immersed in the fulfilment of a Divine command. Wherever possible, we are expected to eat, sleep, study and live in the succah throughout the festival.
So Succot drives us out of our comfort zones, placing us in the primitive environment of a shaky shelter. Living so close to the elements, we are able to experience a little of the fragility of life and focus on our connection to Jewish history, nature, humanity and God; recalling the physical shelters that we built on the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and the Divine protection we received along the way.
While the succah is a very basic, transient structure, there is one law about it which jars. We are commanded to adorn it with our finest table cloths and china, making our meals there just as dignified and aesthetically pleasing as they would be if they were served in the warmth and comfort of our houses (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 639: 1). This surreal halachah sends us out camping in tiny, temporary shacks with silver candlesticks on the table.
Perhaps it is precisely this nuanced approach that Judaism demands of us. It sends us out to an improvised shaky shelter to remind us of our humble origins and to draw our attention to the fact that while many of us currently enjoy the comforts of modernity, we live just a hair’s breadth from catastrophe. For some, those lessons were experienced first-hand in the calamities of natural disaster, recession and antisemitic regimes. Living in the succah for a week brings the rest of us a little closer to their suffering and reminds us of our moral and physical responsibilities to the world.
But it seems there are religious and psychological limits to the advisability of simulating the pain of others or engaging in self-affliction. Rabbi Kook, the Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel suggested that Succot was placed just five days after Yom Kippur to counterbalance some of the intensity of the High Holy Day period. He compared repentance to chemotherapy; the powerful medical treatment which heals our bodies by destroying harmful cells. Ironically, this medicine which is so essential for tackling disease also attacks healthy cells leaving the patient weak and frail. Likewise, although Yom Kippur assists us in repenting for our misdeeds, and atoning for our failures, unless the process is handled with sensitivity, it can crush our self- esteem, denying us the self-confidence to make our contribution to society.
Succot, with its theme of personal and national happiness, offsets some of the painful introspection of the preceding days. It reminds us of the possibility of joy and contentment even as we work to mend an imperfect world. So our simple shacks are decked out as handsomely as possible and filled with festivity, celebrating the gift of life and possibility of closeness to God.
One of Amos Oz’s characters warns that, “If your whole life is devoted to the sanctity of life, then that’s not life, its death”. Judaism rejects that model of sanctity. The pursuit of holiness does not require a rarified life of isolationist contemplation, angst or bitterness. True, it demands total dedication to God’s laws. Mitzvot like the succah raise our awareness of the suffering of others and our commitment to healing the world. But we perform them while appreciating the beauty of God’s creation, surrounded by family and friends at delightful, festive meals. In that way, Succot teaches us to reach a healthy mental balance between our responsibilities to God, humanity and ourselves.