As I write on Thursday 19th September, millions of Jewish people all over the world have completed their first day of celebrating Sukkot. They build shelters in their gardens (or move into the garden shed, or decorate a room up with branches) and are obliged under Jewish law to have a really good party with lots of eating and drinking.
Some rabbis even take the line that it is their religious duty to get a bit tipsy at Sukkot. Elisa and I saw an amazing display when we were on sabbatical in Israel which included footage of incredibly severely dressed ultra-orthodox Jews getting plastered at Sukkot! It's a mistake to think of Hebrew religion as sombre. The Jewish year has three weeks of holidays and feasting to just a single day of fasting.
Sukkot is a Harvest Festival. Just like Christians celebrating God's goodness in bringing forth bread from the earth. We celebrated at St Andrew's Wraysbury last Sunday, and a great time we had too, with the New Life service, and a slap up harvest lunch afterwards! St Michael's Horton are going for it on 6 October and Wraysbury School are doing one too soon. What a great coincidence that we and they celebrate the harvest at about the same time. It's just that the Jews take it a bit further: eating, drinking, and going back to nature.
We might feel sorry for British Jews camping out in the damp and cold of September. But it's a very sensible time to go camping in Israel, where the stifling heat of July and August has finally eased up and going outside is bearable again. This reminds us that Sukkot will always have an extra dimension for Jews actually living in the land of Israel. For them, it is not just enjoying the goodness of God's bounty. That food and drink is the fruit of the Promised Land. The Sukkot feasting is a tangible, edible participation in God's love for them: the love that took them out of slavery and brought them to a place where they could be free. They are in shelters because they have to remember that once they wanderers in the desert - until God gave them a land.
But Sukkot is just one part of a very busy few weeks in the Jewish Calendar. The seventh month starts with New Year - that's the Feast of Trumpets for Leviticus scholars. Then it goes on to Yom Kippur on the tenth day, which this year fell last Saturday. This is the Day of Atonement in English versions of the Bible, when every Jew is obliged to confess and seek forgiveness. On the fifteenth day starts the whole week of rejoicing which is Sukkot - in English the Feast of Tabernacles, i.e. of shelters or tents or sheds. Think of it as a gigantic Spring Harvest, where an entire nation goes camping together to rejoice and seek God.
What we have here really is the symbolic rebirth of the nation:
- Rosh Hashana - the New Year begins
- Yom Kippur - cleansing from wrongdoing so as to renew relationships and start again
- Succoth - participating in God's goodness by eating the fruit of the Promised Land
For Christians these will always be deep portents of what God was going to do in sending Jesus:
- Atonement through the cross. By happy coincidence this year Yom Kippur fell on Saturday 14th, which in some Christian Calendars is Holy Cross Day.
- a joyful New Life where we participate in the love of God: this comes through Jesus' resurrection and the gift of the Spirit.
- the communion service brings these wonderfully together - we remember a body broken and blood poured out for our sins, but we also feast on a living Presence that brings God's love to live inside us.
We reflected on these things together up at Horton last Tuesday at the midweek service. Here are some of our thoughts...
- Just like the Jews at Yom Kippur, we all stand in need of mercy and forgiveness. Why do we find it so hard to say "I'm sorry, I was wrong?" It's bad for our ego, but good for our souls!
- Do we laugh at ourselves enough? Do we see the great joke – that God should choose the likes of us to build his kingdom, knowing how fallible we are and how often we mess up? Is camping at Sukkot about letting go of the material and egotistical things that so dominate our lives and often bring so much stress with them?
- Do we see God as a generous giver who gives the land and the fruit and everything in love for us?
- Is our practice of Christianity joyful enough? Remember the ratio - 3 weeks of feasting to a single day of fasting!
- Let's see Jewish people as our older brothers and sisters in faith. I'm not trying to say we should be uncritical of everything the state of Israel does. A quick flip through the Scriptures will show you that such position is not biblical, because they so often got things wrong - just like us. But I am saying that we owe them everything - our God, our Scriptures and our beloved Messiah all came via the Jews. We should thank them and bless them for such a wonderful inheritance.
And finally, an ancient Hebrew prayer that their younger brothers and sisters in faith can also share in at Harvest Time:
Baruch attah, Adonai Elohenu, Melech ha'olam: hamotzi lehem min ha'aretz -
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe: you bring forth bread from the earth.