Sukkot: Fauna and frailty

I fantasized about combining all three of these far-out customs into one dramatic motion – taking a chicken, beating it over a chair and then throwing it into the river

KAPAROT: EXISTENTIAL – or just bizarre? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
KAPAROT: EXISTENTIAL – or just bizarre?
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
OK, I admit it: we Jews have some very, shall we say, unusual customs, many of which take place right around this season of the year. First, there is tashlich, the ceremony near a body of flowing water (or a fountain, in landlocked places like my holy city of Ra’anana) where we symbolically throw our sins, represented by small pieces of bread or pretzels or stale cookies. I never quite understood exactly how this worked, on a cosmic level, but it does help to feed the fish, and has become a trendy way for young singles to meet, so all in all, it’s not a bad thing.
Then there is kaparot, a ceremony performed on Erev Yom Kippur. Also a symbolic way of “transferring” our sins in an effort to rid ourselves of them, this was always done with a live chicken, which later would be slaughtered and given to a poor person for a pre-Yom Kippur meal. I actually understand the thrust of the original kaparot; seeing a live animal squawking and jumping and squirming one moment, and then seeing it dead the next, can indeed be a sobering experience that brings home the mortality of our momentary existence.
But now that using live creatures has become politically incorrect, I find the act of twirling coins around our heads – as a substitute for chickens – somewhat flat. I also pray that no antisemites are watching, as I’m sure they would get quite a lot of mileage out of it (“the Jews are performing their annual ritual of creating money out of thin air!” I hear them saying).
There is also the rather mystical, but perplexing act of hoshanot, whereby branches of willows are beaten on the ground or over a chair on the seventh day of Sukkot, leaving an awful mess for the synagogue caretaker to clean up. I am tempted to ask that classic question – “Yes or No – have you stopped beating your willows?” – but I’ll pass on that.
Once upon a time, I fantasized about combining all three of these far-out customs into one dramatic motion – taking a chicken, beating it over a chair and then throwing it into the river – but the rabbinic purists would never go for it.
SO LET us comment instead on the more mainstream mitzvot presented by our next holiday, Sukkot, which, when Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are added, is actually the longest of all the biblical holy days.
The concept of living in a little grass shack (or a more modern pre-fab aluminum and canvas cubby, topped off by a bamboo roof) touches a lot of bases. It brings us closer to nature, for starters, reminding us of the days when virtually every Jew in Israel lived off the land and appreciated the blessing of home-grown food. It also helps to turn us into minimalists for at least one week of the year, as we put our more luxurious trappings aside and get back to our humble beginnings (though I actually have a friend in the US who brings his TV into the sukkah so that he can watch baseball’s October classic under the stars).
But most of all, the sukkah, with its temporary walls and see-through roof, reminds us that we live a rather shaky life. We never know when the next crisis will strike, and that we are exposed to the elements 24/7, no matter how much insurance we buy or how sturdy we think our homes – or our borders – are. For all of our existence – as wandering Arameans or permanent citizens of this awesome country – the wise among us know that things can change in the blink of an eye and hurl us into emergency mode. And it is at those times that we understand just how desperately we need God’s protective shield and stronger-than-iron dome to assure our safety and continuity.
The theme of nature is magnified by our taking of the four species, the arba minim. There are innumerable insights into this commandment, but let me mention just a few.
The short shelf-life of the species, particularly the willow and myrtle, reminds us of the unstoppable reality of the Law of Diminishing Resources. The amount of waste we create, the failure to appreciate how precious our Earth is, and how imperative it is for us guard it from harm, are among the greatest challenges of this generation. At the same time, the fragility of the arba minim should motivate us to take advantage of what we have in front of us while we have it. Opportunities don’t last forever; if we wait too long, they may wilt away. (Are you hearing this, Jews living outside of Israel?).
Finally, of course, the four species are all about unity. The integration of all our limbs and organs, including our hearts (etrog), our eyes (the myrtle), our lips (the willows) and our backbone (the lulav). The holding together of all the different types of Jews, those who are scholarly, those who are pious, those who do good deeds and those who hold the nation together just by being. Every Jew is precious and none should be discounted or discarded.
Every element of Sukkot screams out unity: the standardization of our living quarters, the binding together of our diverse personalities, the spirited dancing in circles equidistant from the center, the collective sigh of relief upon emerging from the Day of Atonement with a new lease on life. Our fragmentation as a society and our failure to come together politically is a sad comment on just how much work we have to do before God holds us all together in his proverbial two hands and pronounces a blessing upon us. That will surely be a “Shehecheyanu moment,” when we celebrate having lived to see this miraculous merger of our nation into one faithful and fantastic family.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anan