Harvest of Symbols

Early autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.

Here it’s a basic physical fact of life that weather turns cold. Sensitive plants die or go dormant at the first frost. In a blend of compassion and self-interest, gardeners harvest what they can. They eat, cook, can, and save seeds.

But human life is not just physical. As we harvest, we think, feel, talk, reminisce, and plan. We create rituals that we repeat each year at harvest time.

Sukkot is one such ritual.

Surely the practice of living in a temporary shelter in the field at harvest time is much older than the Jewish religion.

Surely, as we practiced, we thought, felt, talked, reminisced, and planned. We imbued our ordinary practices with deeper meanings.

Surely, we were not the first to do so. Canaanites, Egyptians, Mesopotamians celebrated the harvest before we did.

Yet as our own cultural experience evolved, we began to speak differently about the harvest.

And continued, era after era, to speak differently.

Here’s the 2011 fall harvest from the Or Shalom garden:

Here’s Or Shalom’s 2011 Sukkah:

What do these symbols mean to you?

People have given different answers at different times in Jewish history.

The holiday of Sukkot is about…

The spiritual meaning of the harvest is …

The spiritual meaning of the sukkah is …

Torah teaches (c. 1200 BCE):

As the Israelites journey from Egypt through the wilderness to the land of Israel, Torah says:

The holiday of Sukkot… is about the journey from national homelessness to home.

The Sukkah…As we wandered the wilderness, God housed us in sukkot, temporary shelters.

The harvest…When we arrived in the land, we celebrated the harvest. Grateful to be safe, the landed shared with the poor.

Prophets teach (c. 540 BCE):

As the prophets predict a great era of peace following decades of regional conflict, they declare:

The holiday of Sukkot…is about international peace and cooperation.

The harvest…We celebrate basic human commonalities: people of all nationalities eat, and farmers from every country harvest food. All nations are invited to Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest in a great interfaith service.

The Sukkah…There the new Temple — still under construction itself — will serve as a kind of spiritual sukkah, a temporary shelter as the world transitions to a new way of living.

Talmudic Sages teach (c. 200-500 CE):

As the sages continue to renew Judaism after the Roman occupation has destroyed Judea, they teach a portable religious practice, based on spiritual reflection and acts of lovingkindness:

The holiday of Sukkot..is about our ability to celebrate our culture no matter where we live.

The Sukkah…is a temporary shelter, like the ones we build in the wilderness long ago. There we built a mishkan, a communal pavilion that invited the Shechinah, God’s presence, to dwell among the people. Each sukkah we build is like a mini-mishkan, reminding us that we can dwell with the Shechinah anywhere.

The harvest…We are the harvest. The smells and tastes of harvested fruits represent the ways we spice up communal spirituality through our own study, teaching, and action.

Hassidic rebbes teach (1700-1800):

As the rebbes inspire a renewed Jewish spirituality based on Kabbalistic teachings, they teach:

The holiday of Sukkot…is about our inner spiritual foundations.

The harvest…is the post-Yom Kippur spiritual rush. We have reflected on our lives, been drawn closer to God, made new resolutions for personal practice.

The sukkah…offers an extra reminder as the spiritual harvest fades. During the year, we tend to reach out to God when we are exposed to the harsh, unpredictable weather of life . A Sukkah puts us in close contact with the elemental weather. We  dwell just a little bit longer in the part of self that reaches out to God.

Eco-Judaism teaches (1960s to present):

As they respond to the global environmental and economic crisis, activists teach:

The holiday of Sukkot…shows us how to respond to natural and political cycles.

The harvest…reminds us that we can grow our own food. Even with a small urban garden, we can renew local ecosystems, and rely less on practices that deplete the planet.

The sukkah…dramatizes the truth that economic abundance comes and goes, in the lives of individuals and the lives of nations. Those who live in strong houses this year may find themselves seeking temporary shelter next year. We must learn to pool our communal resources and build together.

You teach (right here and now):

This fall, as I reflect on  ___________, I might say:

The holiday of Sukkot…

The harvest…

The sukkah…

Photos: (1) rant-on-u.blogspot.com ;(2)Yona Sipos; (3) Laura Duhan Kaplan

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