The Biblical Thanksgiving
Each fall, Jews celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, named after the “huts” the Jewish people lived in during their 40 years in the wilderness. Sukkot begins on the night of the largest full moon of the year, the harvest moon. This year it began at sundown on Friday, October 2, and runs through October 10. As a celebration of the year’s largest harvest, Sukkot reminds us to give thanks. The American Pilgrims understood this biblical significance of Sukkot, and made it the basis for Thanksgiving.
Tradition calls us to “live” for a week in a sukkah (sukkot is the plural form) — a hut, open to the sky, with some leaves for a roof. (Eating meals there can qualify for “living,” especially during inclement weather.) Living in a hut reminds us of our interdependence with nature. Our buildings and vehicles are artificial barriers, which insulate us from so many effects of nature. We succumb to an “edifice complex.” They distract us from our constant interaction with nature, inhibiting us from “smelling the roses.” They limit our awareness of the impact we have on nature, so we don’t deal with pollution, conservation of resources — dying species, sustainable development, diversity of energy resources — global warming, or even adequate preparation for “natural” disasters. Just ask the residents of New Orleans. As we become more aware of interdependence, we accept our stewardship of nature.
What living in sukkot can teach us
Living in sukkot — symbols of freedom from civilization — might teach us to detach from those values of our surrounding society that limit our freedom, such as materialism, isolationism and rugged individualism. Freedom is our ability to “worship God” (in secular vocabulary, to “live as we should”): to use all of our resources to pursue our highest values, to fulfill our potential to create or improve ourselves and our world. If all lived freely, then we would celebrate the Messianic dream, our harvest of the moral deeds, which we plant each time we do one.
On the other hand, living in sukkot might remind us of our interdependence with the society around us and push us to connect more closely with the positive values of our American society, such as individual freedom, respect for cultural diversity, caring for one’s neighbors and entrepreneurial creativity.
This season of abundance might remind us of our potential to produce from our earth more than enough food and other resources, so that every person can live a most comfortable life. Our Torah/Bible teaches “distributive justice” — that everyone deserves a base, a “safety net,” of food, housing, health care and education. If so, then all would be freed not only from the “Pharaoh” (any factor which inhibits our freedom to do what we should) of poverty, but also from the Pharaohs of oppression.
All oppression derives from corruption — when a relatively small group of people uses power to control and obtain more than it deserves, more than its fair share. Corruption cannot flourish amidst widespread prosperity, because not only will a strong middle class demand justice and transparency, but also it will have the power to make those things real.
Dwelling in Sukkot might also teach us to protect ourselves from danger not through an exclusive reliance on arms (military and police) and secured buildings, but instead through our love and our connections to other people, based on God’s values. Our prayers call this a “sukkat shalom,” a shelter of peace.
The guests we invite to our sukkot, called ushpizim, might remind us that we are not the first people to envision a world of freedom, comfort and caring. The seven traditional guests provide seven role models from Jewish history – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. Modern versions of ushpizim add women from our tradition, and may also add recent Jewish and non-Jewish heroes. They might reconnect us to our brit, our covenant with God, our partnership agreement to create or improve our world.
We call Sukkot z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. We celebrate plentiful food and resources, freedom, interdependence with nature — and our ability to create or improve our world, to achieve the Messianic ideals of justice, freedom, peace, caring and creativity. Happy Sukkot.