What’s a Paradox? the old joke asks: Marcus Welby MD, and Dr. Kildare! (very old TV docs)
Festivity and Futility: a mix of opposites? They collide in the Autumn on the Holiday of Sukkot! It is the season of harvest, of rejoicing, in the Jewish world and beyond. Sukkot, the festival of the harvest, follows the somber Yom Kippur by four days, with a week long celebration. Coincidentally, in the Muslim world this year is the four day feast Eid al Adha, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. And the Indian Ganesh festival is now as well!
The command for Jews on Sukkot is to be joyful, out in our fragile huts. A paradox, to experience both fragility and joy. And that’s as it should be, because it’s harvest time, when the earth miraculously provides us with bounty as a mother nurses her child, as the land prepares to sleep and plants die. And as it should be, because our lives are fragile, yet we rejoice.
The Torah text for the Shabbat immediately preceding the festival is Ha-azinu: the ancient parting song of Moses to the Israelites. Moses will die soon as we enter the land of Promise. This powerful poem in part portrays a Motherly God, brooding over her nestlings, laboring to birth a nation, and nursing us with Honey from the Rock. (Deut. 32:13) “Rock” is the oft repeated metaphor for God in this text, and also, interestingly, in L’chu n’ran’nah which also commands: Rejoice! How pointedly on target: at a time of feasting and joy, of course God is maternal! (Dahling, eat! I hear my grandma say through misty memory)
So where is the paradox in the Text, you ask? In Deut. 32, verse 9 , it is explained that we, the People, are God’s portion (inheritance), Jacob’s portion is hevel, meaning breath or mist! Hevel: it same word as Abel’s name, who is killed by Cayin, his brother. It is the same as Kohelet’s philosophy (Ecclesiastes), which whispers that our pursuits are Hevel , insubstantial as breath. Kohelet advises us to eat, drink and be merry in spite of Insubstantiality. Because wisdom and the memories of joy can perhaps cross time and generations: In Verse 7 the Text reads: Remember the days olam: eternal, it is the wisdom of the generations. In this text God is sustaining us through Tohu the wild chaos of the desert. And in just a week, we’ll begin Genesis, which Creativity organizes the Tohu into the substance of the universe. For me, being in the Sukkah at this time is a grounding experience, and at the same time a mistical one: on sunny days it’s joyous, and other days it’s misty and sad. And tonight, on the first night, if the clouds clear, will be the full, large, moon at perigee (closest approach). Sukkot is always on the full moon. But at the height of her glowing, the earth’s shadow will drape across and dim her: it’s a full lunar eclipse! What a paradox is this time of year and this Holiday: light and shadow, joy and futility, what a mess! It must be Autumn and Sukkot! Wishing readers Moadim l’simcha, seasons of joy, and chag sameach! Happy Holy day.
My son, Jay, when he was five, in our Sukkah,
Thanks to study partners Jim and Joel for the discussion pathway which opened, and Jim for encouragement.