Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What are you grateful for? Sukkot is the Jewish Thanksgiving

We all know the story of Thanksgiving, right?  The pilgrims survived the long winter only with the help of the natives, and then harvested their first good harvest in the New World.  They celebrated with a big dinner on the 4th Thursday in November, 1621, and boy, were they grateful!  Since then, Thanksgiving has always been a time for Americans to express our gratitude by eating turkey.  

OK, well maybe.  So scholars have debunked the story somewhat, and also pointed out that Thanksgiving has only been celebrated on an annual basis since the late 19th century.  Regardless, there is no question that Thanksgiving is one of the most-celebrated American holidays, and not just as a day off from work.

Here’s the interesting and more relevant point: Thanksgiving is effectively the American version of Sukkot.  

Sukkot is a harvest festival, the same festival which is celebrated around the world in agrarian societies.  The Chinese Moon Festival, the Persian Mehrgan, Korean Chuseok, are examples of other variants on Sukkot.  These are all festivals that celebrate the conclusion of the fall harvest, a time of great joy to our ancestors, and a time of gratitude for all pre-industrial cultures.

Of course, we have all been taught that Sukkot is about the time spent in the desert.  Yes, the Torah says that.  But just by looking at the way that we observe the festival even today, when few if any of us truly live off the land - the Arba’at Ha-Minim the four species, the sukkah, which is quite reminiscent of the temporary shacks that Middle Eastern farmers to this day set up in their fields during harvest time to prevent theft of valuable crops at night, the gourds and fruits with which we decorate the Sukkah, and even the custom of Ushpizin, of inviting in famous figures from Jewish history to come and partake of the bounty - these all point to the harvest angle.

Sukkot is said to be the the only Jewish holiday of complete, perfect joy; as such, there is a traditional theory that says that this is the only holiday that will continue to be celebrated after the Messiah comes.

And it is really a holiday of gratitude, just like Thanksgiving.  Now we have done teshuvah / repentance, fasted, afflicted our souls just a few days ago, and we are humbled and ready for a holiday of pure joy.  


My sister, who lives in Berkeley, California, came to stay with us here in Great Neck for Yom Kippur.  At our break-the-fast, she described a restaurant chain in California called “Cafe Gratitude.”  These restaurants serve entirely organic, vegan food, much of which is also raw.   She told us that, when you enter, the staff asks you, “What are you grateful for today?”

We all had a good laugh over this last Saturday evening, as we were busy stuffing our faces.

Now we were never a particularly “spiritual” or reflective family.  We were not inclined to be interested in our “journeys.”  We were not interested in meditation, mysticism, New-Age-ism, or any such non-concrete, “touchy-feely” stuff.  We were always what-you-see-is-what-you-get, meat and potatoes conventional, and especially when it came to Judaism.  Our Jewish practice was mostly about the what and the how rather than the why.  We had little interest in midrash or motivation.

So, for example, at the Pesah seder, we read the story in English, but had no strong desire to  understand or discuss the material, which is really the point of the seder.  We dutifully washed our hands, reclined to the left while drinking the wine, and dipped all the prescribed dippables.  But getting in touch with the story of freedom, the journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel?  Not interested.  Pass the salt water, please.

And, on the occasional Thanksgiving, when my mother attempted to bother us about what we were thankful for, we rolled our eyes and grunted and tucked into the turkey and stuffing.

So the idea of expressing gratitude, at least aloud, in front of my family, was generally frowned upon.  Add to this the fact that we are all tall people with hearty appetites, and you can understand that when we go into a restaurant, we would prefer just to eat and not be pestered with annoying questions that are seemingly unrelated to the food itself.

And really, that’s what we have liturgy for, isn’t it?  Liturgy provides the words for our praise, thanks, requests, and so forth when our own words escape us or feel inadequate.  The words of the siddur set us free from having to be creative in the ways that we express our praise and thanks to God.

A few days ago, I spent some time flipping through the piyyutim (liturgical poems) for Hoshanot, the litanies recited every day of Sukkot as we parade around the sanctuary with lulav and etrog (we’ll be doing this a little later today).  Now, the whole principle behind marching around and chanting, “Hosha na,” “save us,” is that we are grateful for the many things that God has given us, and we ask that God favors us again in the future as in the past.  Each of the hoshanot paragraphs follows a certain theme of things that we are grateful for.  

(For example, today’s hoshanot piyyut is about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, beginning with Even Shetiyyah, the foundation-stone that is today visible inside the Dome of the Rock, at the top of the mountain, the place where it is traditionally thought that Isaac was bound by his father, and where the Qodesh ha-Qodashim, the Holy of Holies probably stood prior to 70 CE.  The rest of the piyyut is about other features of the Temple.  We asked to be saved based on the merits of the Temple, God’s former dwelling place on Earth).

We express our gratitude through ancient poems in an obscure Hebrew that really only vaguely resembles its modern, spoken equivalent.  Where is the opportunity for us to express ourselves in our own language, according to what we are grateful for in our own lives?

Really, there are two major components to tefillah / prayer: qeva (the fixed text found in our siddur) and kavvanah (that which is spontaneous, from the heart).  To that end, and, bearing in mind that Sukkot is the Jewish Thanksgiving, in a minute or two, I am going to ask now for a few brave, reflective volunteers, who are willing to tell us what they are grateful for today.

First, an anecdote:  puzzles were a favorite pastime in my wife’s family.  She tells me that one of the first puzzles that she recalls putting together without the help of an adult was of a cartoon of a mouse in the midst of a fragrant garden with the caption, “Don’t worry, don’t hurry, don’t forget to smell the flowers.”  I presume that most of us are grateful for family, friends, work, and so forth.  But what what about the small stuff, the inconspicuous blossoms that we might be too hurried to notice?  What of the What apretty autumn leaves that we may or may not pay attention to as we go about our day?  bout the clean water from our taps, the easy availability of healthy food, the infrastructure that we usually take for granted?


When we march around later, reciting hosha na, save us for the sake of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, keep these things in mind as kavvanah.  That is what makes Judaism real for us today.  Be grateful!  

Hag sameah.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday morning, October 14, 2011.)

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