Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was a Hassidic rabbi who left behind his Orthodox community to join the American hippies in the 1960s. He wound up founding the Renewal Movement, combining traditional Judaism with New Age meditation and spirituality.
He used to tell this story of an encounter he had with Brother Rufus, a Native American medicine man. Reb Zalman and Brother Rufus were attending a conference of psychologists and mystics; the psychologists were studying the mystics. As Reb Zalman was explaining the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which occurs at the autumn equinox, and the holiday of Pesach, which comes at the spring equinox, Brother Rufus lit up! “Oh,” he said, “in the autumn you teach your children the shelter survival, and in the spring you teach them the food survival.”
This answer makes a lot of sense of what Sukkot is actually about. Disconnected from the rural desert living of our ancient ancestors, the practice of erecting temporary shelters and covering them in fertility talismans might seem incomprehensible. But for those who are connected to the earth’s agricultural cycles, Sukkot makes a lot of sense. It’s about learning to survive the rainy season.
The Torah portion commands us to spend eight days in temporary shelters to recall our wandering in the wilderness. For the ancient Israelites, this probably wasn’t just recollection of a mythic past. In a world where entire years could be upended by flash flooding, droughts and unexpected ecological malfunction, being able to move must have been a necessity. Any young person would need to know how to build shelter and brave the elements. Considered in this light, Sukkot feels more like a biblical precursor to Scouts and Guides.
By the time of the Mishnah, Jews had migrated away from nomadic agricultural living towards inhabiting larger settlements and cities. Yet even this 2nd Century text seems to capture something of the necessity of surviving the rainy season. It talks about which building materials and supporting structures are appropriate. It instructs us to make sure there are holes in our roof – a sure indicator that we’ll really experience everything the Heavens can throw at us. The Mishnah maintains the survival lessons.
And then, suddenly, the Mishnah seems to strike an altogether different note. Out of nowhere, it tells us about all the different ways to conclude the festival celebrations. The text stops being about surviving and starts being about how to be joyful. Harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets. Psalms and songs and dancing. Shofar blasts. Meat. Banqueting. Carnival. In fact, the Mishnah tells us: “if you haven’t seen a party like this, you’ve never seen joy before in your life.”
Why would the Mishnah jump from teaching us the survival methods of our ancestors to talking about all this revelry? Perhaps the answer is that they’re not so distinct after all. Joy isn’t an add-on to survival: it’s integral to it. If you really want to get through the rainy seasons and the darkness of winter, you’ve got to have the right mindset. Cosy homes and well-stocked cupboards matter a lot, but attitude counts too.
The health psychologist Kari Leibowitz reckons she can back this up with science. She studied the mental health of people living in the polar regions of Norway, when winter brings exceedingly long nights and disrupted sleep patterns. Amazingly, she found that Norwegians were just as happy in the winter as at any other time of year. This was because many Norwegians approached the long nights as a challenge that excited them. The more people saw winter as a fun time, the more fun they actually found it.
Maybe that’s what our forebears of Torah and Mishnah knew from years of experience. If you want to get through the rainy season, you have to actually want the rain to come. You have to be a little bit thrilled by the idea. Surviving is not just about keeping our bodies intact – it’s about having mental determination to get through.
Some of that is about what you imagine when you think of the rainy months. I’ve already started picturing hot chocolates, roast vegetables, games of Scrabble and complicated jigsaw puzzles. I’m imagining arts and crafts while sitting under piles of rugs with the baby in a handmade jumper.
Of course, not everybody has access to the luxuries I’m describing. Some people are legitimately worried that autumn could bring tighter finances, struggles heating their houses and even homelessness as recession kicks in. These are serious issues, and it’s not fair to expect people facing such challenges to feel joy. So why not start easing their minds now?
Our food banks, mutual aid societies and housing shelters need your support. Get down now to donate what you can, and give what you can through their websites. If you want to practice feeling joy, helping others is a great way to start.
So that’s how we’re going to survive the rainy months. By knowing our history. By learning traditional skills. By experiencing joy. By helping each other.
After all, there’s only one way we can get through all this: together.
I gave this sermon for Sukkot 5781 on 3rd October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.