Parashat Hashavua for Succot Day 1
Cantor David Bentley
Temple Shalom Gold Coast
As we approach Sukkot this year many of us are still reeling from the strangeness of our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur experiences under the Covid restrictions, wherever we happened to be.
In my own congregation these services were the first time we opened our physical doors to the congregation in fully six months.
As I write this we are planning for an Erev Sukkot service that will take place in the courtyard where we have our Sukkah, and social distancing requirements mean that most of those in attendance won't be able to sit under the sukkah for the service. Last year we all did. Again, it's going to feel a bit strange.
It seems to me that a degree of strangeness is inherent in the festival itself. Although not immediately obvious, it suffers from a serious case of split personality.
On the one hand, as many of us were taught as children and continue to believe, Sukkot recalls the Biblical account of what happened after Sinai. Our ancestors were supposed to take possession of the Promised Land right away, but they let their slave mentality get in the way, and so God decreed they would have to wander in the wilderness for forty years, dwelling in makeshift huts all that time. I'm not sure that I can accept the notion that such huts existed; either the wilderness was full of plenty of foliage to replace the roofs as they constantly would have wore out, or those huts were a lot more durable than we are supposed to think. Either way I find it shaky ground.
On the other hand, archaeology shows us that the production of olive oil was a major and lucrative export industry in ancient Israel, and it was the practice during the harvest season – which fell at this time of year – to protect the trees by sleeping out in the orchards in temporary huts until the harvest was done. The festival's origin as a harvest festival is evident in the use of fruit to decorate the sukkah.
So Sukkot is either a celebration of a major religious narrative, or it is a remnant, a vestigial cultural memory if you will, of an annual harvest practice that had no religious significance at all. Split personality indeed!
Having said that, I think these two positions can be reconciled quite easily. I would suggest that the established practice of sleeping in huts during the olive harvest was co-opted by religious leaders to form the basis of the festival that takes its names from those very huts. Who those leaders were, I have no idea. I'm talking about people who lived over three thousand years ago, the people who were responsible for creating the narratives that were eventually redacted into what we now know as our Torah. These early religious leaders, whose identities are unknown to us, put a religious spin on a widespread non-religious practice. What a stroke of brilliance! Many people grew olives and would have slept in those huts anyway, so their actions would have validated the religious narrative regardless of their personal beliefs.
Now it gets even stranger and by the time I'm done explaining why, you'll either swear off olives for life, or want more than you know what to do with.
Let's look forward a couple of months to Channukah. Like Sukkot, it's also eight days. The early rabbis claimed this was due to the miracle of the single jar of oil, that supposedly took eight days to replace. Given that the country was filled with olive groves, to the point that it was a major export industry, how could it be remotely possible that it would take more than a day or two to find fresh olive oil? To me this stretches credibility past the breaking point.
We find the answer in the Book of Maccabees. The early rabbis tried to suppress it – it did not find its way into the Tanach. Fortunately it survived in the Catholic bible, so we are able to read the account of the Maccabees' war with the Greeks, which was at its height at the time of year when the festival of Sukkot would normally have been observed. The account in Maccabees is quite clear: when the fighting died down they not only rededicated the Temple, but also observed the eight days of Sukkot, a couple of months late – and so unwittingly established the new festival of Channukah. The very name of that festival can mean “rested on the 25th”, in other words, a simple statement of the fighting having ended, allowing the Maccabees to finally rest and observe Sukkot, starting on the 25thof Kislev (instead of the 15thof Tishrei where it would normally have been). Not a drop of miraculous oil anywhere in sight, only a fervent wish to observe a major festival, albeit later than normal, and hey presto, a brand new festival to add to the calendar.
If not for the ancient practice of sleeping in the orchards during the olive harvest, we would not have the practice of building and using temporary huts at this time of year. If the religious leaders who created the festival of Sukkot had not co-opted that practice, it may well have died out. The festival of Sukkot, if it existed at all, would have had some other basis and might have found its way into the Torah not as an eight-day festival but some other length. If not for the festival of Sukkot as an eight-day festival, the Maccabees would not have given us the eight days of Channukah. We owe a lot to olives. Strange, but true.