COMMENTARY: The Recurring Relevancy of the Jewish Holy Days

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Interreligious Adviser, is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.)

(UNDATED) “What have the ancient religious holidays got to do with me? It’s all kid stuff.”

Every rabbi, minister or priest has heard this question or a close variation of it hundreds of times. The clear implication of the questioner is that traditional holy days have no meaning for modern men and women who long ago outgrew the need for such antiquated festivals.

I love such queries because they provide an opportunity to show that despite our incomparable technological, medical and scientific advances, the so-called outmoded holidays are really “with it” and relevant today.

That is particularly evident at this season of the year when the Jewish people throughout the world celebrates the eight-day biblical harvest holiday of Sukkot (Hebrew for “booths”) that begins on Wednesday evening, Sept. 29 with special synagogue services. “You shall dwell in booths … that future generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt …” (Leviticus 23:42-43).

Coming in the autumn, just five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a welcome change of pace from the somber Day of Atonement as well as offering extraordinary and remarkably accurate insights into the unchanging human condition.

For more than 2000 years Jews have followed the biblical injunction and constructed Sukkot _ frail huts _ near their homes. The flimsy shelters are frequently made of wood, tree branches, corn stalks, reeds and even bamboo as a way of collectively remembering the simple shelters the newly freed Hebrew slaves resided in during their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. The Sukkot are usually adorned with fall foliage, dried fruits and vegetables.

The booths must always be temporary in nature to convey the fleeting nature of both our physical homes and our personal existence. Sukkot is an annual reminder that nothing in this world is either well ordered or truly secure. Amid the joy of the holiday is the recognition that the transitory structures are symbolic of our rapidly passing lives.

Many Jewish families eat all their meals inside the Sukkot during the eight-day holiday period. Some people even sleep in the huts as a tangible way of identifying with their ancestors who had no permanent housing after the exodus from Egyptian slavery.

In addition, visitors are warmly welcomed inside the booths; indeed, hospitality is an important aspect of the holiday. And, of course, it is a religious requirement to study Torah within the confines of the Sukkot.

This year we only have to mention three proper names _ Charley, Frances and Ivan _ to recognize a basic truth of the Sukkot holiday.

We like to think our lives are well ordered and our places of residences secure, but try telling that to the battered residents of Florida during this terrifying hurricane season. Some people have been killed, while many others saw their beloved residences and retirement dreams turned into rubble. Their most precious possessions gained over a lifetime were scattered into the howling wind and the watery storm surges. Faced with broken homes with no roofs, and without electric power, drinking water or sewage, many people resembled the ancient Hebrews living in the wilderness.

But there is more to the Sukkot holiday than the temporary booths used for meals, study and prayer. Ecclesiastes, one of the most unique and perplexing books of the entire Bible, is read during the holiday. It is an apt choice.

The authorship of Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet in Hebrew, is attributed to a world-weary and elderly King Solomon _ a ruler who, to use contemporary parlance, “has been there and done that.” Kohelet’s opening theme that “vanity of vanities … all is vanity” (1:2) flows naturally into Sukkot’s bittersweet message that life is transient, and we are all dependent upon God for our continued existence.

Critics have called Ecclesiastes a “cynical” book that is out of character with the rest of the Hebrew Bible. However, I find it a bracing corrective in a world filled with self-important hype, overblown egos and gigantic pretensions _ the antithesis of the Sukkot holiday and Ecclesiastes.

We often feel essential, even indispensable, in our work or within our families. Ecclesiastes shatters such a belief with two potent verses: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes on the scene, The sun also rises, and the sun goes down … there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:4-5,9).

Trust me, neither the holiday of Sukkot nor the book of Ecclesiastes is kid stuff. Both represent grown-up religious values that are timeless.


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