Keeping Grounded

Keeping Grounded


Succot morning 5783 10th October 2022

After the ethereal, other-worldly quality of Yom Kippur, we are back in the world with Succot. After dressing in white, in imitation of the angels, we have the glorious colours of the lulav and etrog and the fruit of the Succah, coinciding with the beautiful colours of autumn.

Succot brings us back into the world of the concrete, in which Judaism is grounded.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a vital part of our yearly cycle, taking us out of the world for a brief period to focus on the spiritual.  But the other major festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, are based in the world, celebrating harvests and history.  Of all these festivals, Succot brings us into closest contact with the natural world by asking us to dwell for a week in the fragile structures from which the festival takes its name, subject to the rain, wind and sun. It reminds us of our dependency on God, but also on our own inner resilience and resources.

Judaism celebrates the world, it does not seek to remove us from it.  We are told in the Talmud: ‘A person will have to account in the world to come for every good thing they could have enjoyed but did not.’  God’s creation is given to human beings to enjoy and celebrate.  Just as Pesach celebrates the spring, so Succot marks the coming of autumn when it becomes cool again -which in the heat of the desert would have been a blessing too. Both festivals are agricultural, celebrating the spring and the autumn harvest, as Shavuot celebrates the summer harvest.

We began as a nomadic people, but once we settled in the land of Israel, agriculture became central to our existence. The Torah contains many commandments about how we farm and what we should do with our produce, from leaving the corner of the field to the poor to leaving the produce unharvested in the Sabbatical year.  When we were exiled from our land, our farming did not cease.  The Talmud elaborated the laws of the Torah, clearly reflecting agricultural life in Babylon. Whenever we had the opportunity, we continued to farm in the lands of our dispersion.  The most famous of all biblical and Talmudic commentators, Rashi, made his living by tending vineyards in the Champagne region. When the first Zionist pioneers returned to the Land, they were determined to restore our agricultural nature and risked their lives in mosquito-infested swamps to build kibbutzim and grow agricultural produce once more.  The pioneer Aaron David Gordon at the beginning of the twentieth century sought to promote physical labour and agriculture as a means of uplifting Jews spiritually and was hugely influential. He wrote: ‘It is labour (by which he meant agricultural labour) which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture, which in its turn is an outgrowth of the people's toil and the people's labour.’ For him, working the land was a return to the national culture of the Jewish people and would help to rebuild that culture.

It is something of a cliché that Jews are not farmers now, but in fact we had a farmer in our congregation and I had a Jewish friend who grew up on a farm -  Jewish farmers are not as unusual as we think.  Sadeh is a Jewish farm which is building on this tradition. They are the only farm in Europe which is organised by Jewish people in order to put Jewish principles into practice.  They celebrate Jewish festivals and observe Shabbat.  They farm organically and donate their produce to local foodbanks so that children can benefit from fresh produce.  They also engage children and adults in nature-based learning.  Sadeh are restoring a long tradition of Jewish farming and putting Jewish principles into practice in their care for the earth and for others.

We may not all be farmers but some of us are keen gardeners and all of us can find opportunities to connect with the natural world.  Next week, at Simchat Torah, we will read the story of creation and be reminded once again of its wonder and beauty.  Succot reminds us to be rooted in the world.  May we take the opportunity during the festival to go outside, to celebrate the elements, to feel the wind and the rain and the sun, to see the leaves turning red and gold, to understand that soil is not mud but a complex environment in which insects and other organisms thrive, and to notice squirrels and birds as they prepare for the coming cold.  May the festival of Succot,  z’man simchateinu, the time of rejoicing, teach us to give thanks that we have been given this glorious world and that we have been blessed with the senses to enjoy it. And may it inspire us to be Shomrei Adamah, guardians of the world for the sake of those who come after us.