Counting Our Blessings

Sermon given October 1, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

When I was a small child, I recall hearing the Rabbi castigating folks who attend only on the High Holy Days. Naturally, he offered his rebuke on the High Holy Days, when those so-called “twice a year” Jews were present.

I don’t complain, but I am concerned about those whose fall holiday observance is limited to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those two days are awe-inspiring, to be sure. They can also be frightening. Even as we celebrate the new year, we are called to engage in the process of repentance. On Yom Kippur, we hear about our sins so many times that we may come to think of ourselves as wholly without merit. A person who attends only on those two days could come away with the notion that Judaism is an awfully harsh religion, even depressing.

In ancient Israel, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were not the “High Holy Days.” Apart from every single Shabbat, the Torah makes clear that the most important occasions are the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. On all three of these gatherings, we praise God for the harvest. On all three festivals, we recall God’s goodness to our people in ancient days. While Passover remains the single most-observed Jewish holiday, according to studies, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur certainly have gained ascendancy over Sukkot and Shavuot.

The reasons for the popularity of today’s High Holy Days are not hard to understand. We are, by and large, no longer an agricultural people. Festivals celebrating the harvest may seem to have little relevance to us. Indeed, even as we celebrate Passover en masse, few of us take note of the agricultural aspects of that holiday. Why do we have that parsley again? Moreover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be interpreted as rituals that address us as individuals, dealing with our own sins, while the pilgrimage festivals speak to us as a whole Jewish people. Modernity brought with it the emphasis on the individual over the collective, for both good and ill. With that new accentuation came the growing identification of the Day of Atonement as the most important day of the year.

Yes, it’s hard to get all geared up for another Jewish holiday, beginning just five days after Yom Kippur. Building a Sukkah is a great deal of work, particularly on the heels of all the labor associated with preparing the holy day meals of the preceding two weeks. The truth, though, is that we need Sukkot. After all that time spent counting our sins, the time has come to count our blessings.

Our ancient Rabbis understood the intimate connection between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Traditionally, one is supposed to hammer the first nail to build the Sukkah, as soon as one breaks the fast at the end of Yom Kippur. Yes, we had better get cracking, if we’re going to have that Sukkah ready just five days later. More importantly, though, beginning to build the Sukkah at that hour is a symbol that a happier holiday is on the way.

Sukkot is called zeman simhateinu, the season of our rejoicing. Unlike other holidays, we are actually commanded to be happy on Sukkot. The great medieval Rabbi, Maimonides, wrote about the rejoicing that took place in the ancient Temple on Sukkot: “Fifes sounded, and harps, and lyres, and cymbals were played. Whoever could play a musical instrument did so, and whoever could sing, sang. Others stamped their feet, slapped their thighs clapped their hands, leaped, or danced, each one to the best of his ability, while songs and hymns of praise were being recited.” That’s certainly a change of pace from Yom Kippur! Lest we think that such rejoicing is frivolous, Maimonides teaches: “Rejoicing in the fulfillment of the commandment . . . is a supreme act of divine worship.”

At my own house, Sukkot is a special time of celebration, even this year, while we’ve all been under the weather this week. On Monday evening, after spending all day at home sick, in pajamas, Robert, age four, got himself completely dressed, with no prompting, as he has never previously done, and pronounced himself ready to help building the Sukkah. Hours later, at a quarter to four in the morning, he showed up at our bedside, again fully clothed, and said: “It’s time to decorate the Sukkah.” We wave our lulav and etrog in the Sukkah, and give thanks to God, together, as a family. Our children have become inveterate Sukkah-hoppers, and we look forward to special occasions, like the Outreach Committee’s annual Sukkot pot-luck, to be held this Sunday evening, at the home of Bill Goodman and Bob Biasiolli. You’re all invited to join in the fun, beginning at 5:00 P.M..

We also rejoice a great deal during Sukkot here at the Temple. On Wednesday night, our sixth graders helped us celebrate in style. Then, next Wednesday evening, as Sukkot draws to a close with the observance of Atzeret-Simhat Torah, we shall sing and dance, just as Maimonides tells us that our ancestors did in the ancient Temple.

But why do we need to be commanded to be happy? Why would God have to impose a religious ordinance, in order for us to rejoice?

To be sure, some folks celebrate too much and too often. Yom Kippur was for them.

For many, though, life can be viewed as a series of routines and obligations that bring only fatigue and burn-out. Mid-life crisis is not a rare disorder. Folks act out, to use psychological or modern lingo – we call it sin – as a sub-conscious and self-defeating way of breaking the monotony of unhappy lives. We ask God “why,” when things go wrong, and they do, at least periodically, throughout everybody’s life.

Perhaps, then, the idea behind Sukkot is that acting happy can help us to be happy. Surely, a commandment to “be happy” is absurd, at a certain level. And yet, I have seen it work. Engaging in the act of rejoicing, even if a bit forced, usually makes us feel at least a little bit better.

More importantly, Sukkot helps us to a more positive attitude, by enjoining us to examine the good harvest of our lives. Though we be not farmers, each of us has a harvest to measure. For some, that good yield is the meaning we find in our work, and the way that our labors touch others. For somebody else, the good crop is the family we have built. For yet another, a good produce may just be that we are still alive and perhaps able to get out of bed in the morning. Life itself is a gift, a blessing to count, a cause for rejoicing.

Sukkot offers us a specific symbol to use for our celebration. I speak now of the lulav. Yes, the four species probably originated as a pre-Israelite pagan fertility ritual. Be that as it may, the Torah teaches us to take the four species together, and rejoice with them. We hold the palm, the willow, the myrtle, and the citron together, and wave them in every direction: north, south, east, and west, heavenward and toward the Earth. We thereby acknowledge that our blessings come to us from every direction. If only we will look around us, we shall see.

Moreover, the four species are said to represent four different kinds of Jews. We hold them tightly together, to symbolize the importance of our Jewish community. We find blessings in being together, in celebrating with all who share our covenant.

As we do, perhaps we will begin to ask God “why,” not only when bad things happen, but when we recognize the blessings of our lives. Why have I been granted love? What did I do to deserve life on this Earth? We have a tendency to take credit for our own accomplishments. Sukkot, though, taught ancient farmers that their good produce was not only the result of their agricultural skill and hard work. Even that talent and that drive are gifts from God. On Sukkot, we are reminded of the ultimate Source of everything that we have, and of everything that we are.

The Torah tells us that we dwell in Sukkot, to remind us that God gave these tabernacles to our ancestors as homes, if you will, while they wandered in the desert for forty years. Rabbi Akiva argued that they actually lived in Sukkot, but there is no mention of such booths when the Torah talks about the Israelites in the desert. Rabbi Eliezer says instead that the Sukkah is a this-worldly representation of the cloud that covered the Israelites, throughout their journey. Those freed slaves were beset by desert heat and sun in the daytime, by cold and darkness at night. God provided a cloud, to shield them from the blistering sun during the day. That same cloud would turn into a pillar of fire at night, granting them light and warmth. When the cloud moved, the people followed. When the cloud stayed put, the people remained encamped. For forty years, the cloud was the people’s sign of God’s protection and guidance.

We, too, feel burned by life sometimes. At other times, we are in the dark, alone and cold. We stray from the good path, and we wander, like our ancestors in the desert. The Sukkah reminds us of the goodness of our lives. God’s protection hovers over us, at all times, like a Sukkah. God is our guide, giving us reason to be thankful, even when we feel most forlorn.

On this festival of Sukkot, let us rejoice. Let us act happy, and may we be happy. Let us count our blessings. And may we come to the spiritual wisdom that our greatest blessing is the permanent presence of our God in our lives.