Succot is About the Resilience of the Human Spirit

October 2, 2009
succah sukkah succot sukkot tabernacles chag festival family ritual

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 2nd October 2009

First came the tsunami in the South Pacific, then, less than 24 hours later, the earthquake in Sumatra, claiming hundreds of victims. The scenes have been devastating, of shattered buildings and broken lives. And our thoughts and prayers must be with the people of Samoa and Tonga and Padang as they struggle to come to terms with tragedy and loss.

This latest series of natural disasters has reminded us yet again of how small we are in the face of the elemental forces of nature. All our illusions of security can be shattered in a moment by the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates, and people can find themselves vulnerable and homeless in an instant.

And in a strange way that is the message of the Jewish festival of Succot, Tabernacles, that begins tonight. For the next week we’ll be leaving the security of our homes to live in huts in memory of the forty year journey of the Israelites in the days of Moses, through the Sinai desert on their way to the Promised Land.

Succot is a strange festival. It celebrates no miracle, like the crossing of the Red Sea or the revelation at Mount Sinai. It’s about homelessness and vulnerability, something Jews have known about for much of their four-thousand-year history. Wherever they were, however seemingly secure, they knew that tomorrow all that could disappear in a wave of persecution or a decree of expulsion.

And as we sit in the succah, with only leaves for a roof, exposed to the wind, the rain and the cold, we feel in our very bones the raw edge of reality and know, in the words of one of our mystics, that life is a narrow bridge across the abyss, swaying in the wind.

Succot is a festival about the human condition as it is, not as we would like it to be. It offers no easy answers to hard questions, like why do the innocent suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Succot is about faith as persistence, the strength not to be defeated by tragedy, and the courage to begin again after you’ve lost all you had.

Succot is about the resilience of the human spirit. It’s not about God the strategic intervener who, like superman, rescues us from harm. It’s about the breath of God within us, that helps broken hearts to heal, broken lives to be rebuilt. May God be with the people of Sumatra, and may we be with them too, in our aid and in our prayers.