History, Memory, and Sukkot
One of the central dialectics within Judaism is the interplay between history (what actually happened) and memory (what events are embedded into our national consciousness).
It is clear that the historical origins of Sukkot are found in the agricultural cycle. Borrowing many of the same elements of Canaanite/Ugaritic agrarian temporal rites, the ancient Israelites would spend a week celebrating the new harvest, literally living out in the fields while using the best of their agricultural yield in ritualistic service of God.
However, as time went on and the Israelite tradition continued to evolve from and outgrow their Canaanite/pagan roots replacing it instead with that of ethical monotheism, a new national memory arose.
Hundreds of years before this agrarian society was established, our prophets taught, God took us out of Egypt and, during our travels in the desert, he protected us with a cloud of glory. This week we go outside, leaving the comforts and protection of our own homes, to remember that God is the real protector of the Jewish people and we trust that his protection will continue while we reside in temporary and defenseless Sukkot.
But in this jump from history to memory, from the cyclical calendar of the ancient agrarians to the ethical monotheism of modern Judaism, there is a moral leap that is often missed.
God (or the gods) was no longer was no longer relegated to the mundanity of the cyclical yearly calendar. God wasn’t just a deity that provided rain or drought, famine or food, or even plague or health depending on his erratic mood and harsh judgment of the people as the Canaaties taught (and is reflected in much of the early writings in the Torah). Rather, God became an actor in history - and not just any actor but a fundamentally moral one - altering the past and ensuring that each year was different from the past paving the way for ultimate moral perfection.
One need not even necessarily believe in God to understand the importance of this shift.
The Judeo tradition teaches that humans are created in the image of God. We must strive to emulate God, attempting to internalize his actions throughout history - as embedded deep within Jewish memory. A God who frees slaves, who provides protection to a protection-less and homeless people while they attempt to navigate a difficult journey, a God who provides food and drink for a hungry people in a desert. And, perhaps most importantly, we strive to emulate a God who knows that moral action can transform history for the better - paving a better future for all involved.
In this light the words of Maimonides ring clear:
When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not indulging in rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the [selfish] rejoicing of his gut. (Laws of Yom Tom 6:18)
If one doesn’t internalize the fundamental moral message inherent in the Jewish holidays, according to Maimonides, they are missing the entire point of the day.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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