There are still guests we can ask into our socially-distanced succot

Our thoughts at this year's festival should be with nature


Succot 1861 New Orleans. In the midst of the US Civil War, New Orleans, a Northern city for the purposes of the war, was largely cut off and supplies of obscure ritual objects were not high on anyone’s priority list.

But for the Jewish community it presented a serious problem. Willow, myrtle, and palm all grow in the Mississippi delta where New Orleans sits, but no one had ever thought to try and grow an etrog. What to do? Rabbi Bernard Illowy, the community’s senior authority, issued guidance.

For one year only a lemon would be just fine; no blessing, but still hold the lemon in one hand and the lulav in the other and ensure that the ritual is not forgotten. For another year that peculiar act of holding the arba minim would be imprinted on the community’s hands once again.

Thus far, I have not heard any concerns about supply shortages of either lulav or etrog in the UK, but we are still in 2020, so anything seems possible. Nevertheless, what is clear is that the time honoured tradition — reaching back to at least the 16th-century kabbalists and their reading of the Zohar — of inviting ushpizin to our succot will be severely curtailed this year.

If you are already a family of six or more, then you cannot invite anyone at all. But even for smaller families or individuals, creating a succah with ample space for social distancing and the attendant challenges of working out whom to invite and when will be a real challenge (and that’s just with the rules at the time of writing). The years of cramped succot, weather-proofed against the British autumn, full of intergenerational family and friends must be a memory, more than a reality, this year.

Of course, symbolically we can still invite the traditional guests — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David — and/or the modern additions —Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther — or indeed any of our ancestors to whom we might wish to offer our hospitality. But living, breathing human guests are going to be rather more difficult this year. So in the spirit of Rabbi Illowy, I would like to offer a different, but still meaningful possibility this Succot.

The festival of Succot, like the other pilgrimage festivals (Pesach and Shavuot), has both agricultural and historical origins. Succot is both the autumn harvest as well as a remembrance of the Israelites wandering through the desert. As such we build and live in (or at least eat in) our succot, doing our best to recreate the insecurity of the nomadic experience of our newly liberated ancestors.

Succot reminds us that we are vulnerable to the natural world — temperature variations, precipitation, predators, poisonous creatures of all sorts, and more. We forget in climate controlled homes with secure roofs over our heads and bolted doors that the world outside can be dangerous.

And yet if this year has taught us anything at all, it must be that we, humans, are the greatest threat to life on earth as we have known it. Encroachment by people into previously uninhabited areas is most likely what has led, eventually, to Covid-19. But equally, many of us have found the spots of nature — our gardens, local parks, beaches, and national parks — to have been our relief during the long months of lockdown. Reconnecting with a natural world that might sometimes seem scary has actually turned out to be deeply healing.

Maybe that’s why God let the newly liberated slaves wander in the desert for 40 years. Numbers 13 -14 tells us that the Israelites are made to wander because when the spies come back from scouting out the land of Canaan, only two of the twelve bring back a positive report. God, thus, punishes the Israelites to wander for 40 years until the generation of the exodus from Egypt has died out and a new Israelite community can emerge.

But maybe it’s not just that the generation of the Exodus needs to die off. Maybe the desert itself has psychological healing qualities; maybe the wandering was like an extended intergenerational camping trip that reconnected the Israelites with what should have been their deep connection with the land.

As we recreate that moment in our own succot this year, instead of worrying about which people we can invite, maybe we should consider some very different guests that we, too, need to reconnect with — solitary bees, damselflies, foxes, hedgehogs, blackbirds, blue tits, and funnel web spiders or whatever is common in your area.

Just like Rabbi Illowy allowing lemons when etrogs weren’t available, maybe this year when human company might be difficult to invite, we should give into the insecurity of our succot and invite the natural world in to eat with us and reconnect with a planet that we must urgently find a way to protect.

Rabbi Kahn-Harris is principal of Leo Baeck College


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