Sukkot: Your contribution to Jewish continuity.

As we assembled our arba minim (four species) to waive the lulav and etrog in six directions, the rabbi said: “If I weren’t Jewish, I would think this is a crazy ritual.  But the more things Jews do that are different from non-Jews, the better I like it.”   

Indeed, waiving a citrus and three plants in the air for Sukkot -- as well as living (or at least eating) in temporary shelters for a week -- must seem, not just to non-Jews but to many of us, as some combination of pagan, primitive, irrational, and/or embarrassing behavior.  What kind of thing is this for modern, rational, “hi-tech” people, largely insulated from agriculture, the night sky, the vagaries of weather, etc.?

As usual, our tradition ascribes various meanings to this ritual.  See, for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Species#Symbolism or http://www.mazornet.com/holidays/Sukkot/lulav.htm.  But the fact that at least some of us continue doing this “crazy” thousands-of-years-old ritual has perhaps greater meaning than the ritual itself. 

Today’s Jerusalem Post contains an editorial titled “Intermarriage” that references an article by Jewish Theological Seminary American History Professor Jack Wertheimer.  http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2013/09/intermarriage/

Professor Wertheimer's specific topic is intermarriage, but his larger issue is Jewish continuity.  It’s an article well worth reading, as well as responses to it from notables such as former URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffe. 

The Jerusalem Post editorial states:

[For Jewish continuity’s sake], American Jewry, Wertheimer seems to be saying, has to be willing to pay the price of being perceived as clannish or even racist in a country that celebrates personal choice and indifference to religious, ethnic and racial distinctions.

The editor is certainly correct that America is a country that celebrates personal choice and indifference to racial distinctions (albeit, as to the latter, still with decidedly mixed success).  Is America also a country that celebrates indifference to religious and ethnic distinctions?  And even if not true of America “as a whole,” is it a fair assessment of non-Orthodox American Jewry? Perhaps more than we would care to admit.   

As I wrote last week, Jews are a people, rather than followers of a “religion,” per se.  Many of our rituals and traditions are ancient.  (See, for example, accompanying photo of ancient synagogue mosaic with lulav and etrog).  They seem strange to us.  Yet, they help define us as a people.  They connect us with our ancestors, and will help future generations connect with us.  But only if we continue them and consider it very important to actively pass them on.  

I got a late start.  I did not grow up in a ritually observant Jewish family, although we were very active in our synagogue.  I don’t recall ever having a sukkah at home, nor waiving the lulav and esrog there.  I do dimly recall having one or more “meals” in the synagogue’s sukkah while I was in “religious school,” and we probably waived the lulav there, too.   But that wasn’t enough to make much of an impression as I grew up, nor to set an example for my small children.  It wasn’t until later in life that I became serious about performing and perpetuating many of my people’s traditions.  I very much regret that now.  

Our tradition calls Sukkot, simply, “Chag.”  That is, it is the Jewish festival par excellence.  It is filled with Jewish “distinctions” that speak to Jewish tradition, peoplehood, and continuity.  And, it has just begun.  

If you did not purchase a lulav and esrog set, you can certainly still buy a lemon and find a small palm frond to waive.  If you have not yet built any kind of temporary booth (sukkah) in which to enjoy festive meals in the yard or on a balcony, why not put up a bamboo or similar “roof” and decorate sheets with drawn fruits and vegetables (or plastic ones) for walls?  Don’t miss celebrating and perpetuating Sukkot, the festival of our rejoicing.  Our festival of thanksgiving.  

Do it for yourself, your children, and your grandchildren.  Do it for Jewish continuity.  Do it for all of us and our descendants. Invite guests.

And rejoice in our distinctions!

Chag sukkot sameach! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb