October 17, 2008
This evening we find ourselves in the midst of the beautiful Festival of Sukkot, the Fall Harvest holiday of Jewish tradition. Its major symbols are the etrog and lulav, four species of nature, which remind us to appreciate the world around us, as well as to give thanks with all of our being.
The second is of course the sukkah, the temporary booth that we are supposed to construct outside our homes and only utilize for the seven days of the holiday, as a reminder of the temporary huts that in which our ancestors dwelt as they sojourned from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land.
In the past building a sukkah was not a major problem, but in our day there can be legal problems. One Jewish family built their sukkah, but a not so understanding, perhaps even anti-Semitic neighbor immediately took them to court, since it did not meet the various codes and building ordinances of the community. They wanted it torn down.
Fortunately, the case came before Judge Cohen or was it Waltzer? The judge fairly and impartially listened to the complaint and in a Solomonic ruling ordered that the sukkah had to be dismantled, but gave the family ten days to do so.
This festival is loaded with meaning, including ancient themes that continue to resonate in our day and modern ideas that address our contemporary situation. When I think of Sukkot, my memories go back to childhood. We did not have a sukkah in our home, but we did at the synagogue. I distinctly recall that this was the holiday when we brought canned goods, which were distributed to the poor. This was long before programs like Second Harvesters were standard in every community across America. That message of sharing our bounty is as meaningful today as it was in days gone by.
Then there is the custom of Ushpizin. During Sukkot we are called upon to be hospitable as we welcome our friends to our sukkah to share a meal. But more than just our current connections, we also have the opportunity to conjure up the great heroes of the Jewish past to symbolically invite them into our sukkah as we link ourselves in a spiritual way to the generations: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Moses, Miriam and Aaron, Joshua and many more from the Bible.
In a moment I will ask you to share who you might like to enjoy some time with in your sukkah. “Hero” is a bit of a strong term. Let’s say these are people from across time and space that we admire and would appreciate their company. For example I might include: Elijah the prophet, who undoubtedly would have some great stories; Maimonides from the middle ages, who seems to know everything; Baruch Spinoza, whose ideas were revolutionary and was actually excommunicated from the Jewish people or perhaps Emma Lazarus to share some 19th century American Jewish poetry.
Who might you invite into your sukkah and why?
This imaginary connection with heroes of our past is fun and as far as I am concerned if we do not enjoy ourselves as Jews, we are missing out on an essential principle of Judaism. Sukkot is the precise time for this idea. Literally, the Torah calls upon us to “rejoice in this Festival.” It is called “zeman simchateinu- the time of our rejoicing.” Joy, pleasure, happiness are essential parts of living and while they cannot be the essence of life, neither should they be subjugated. Tradition prescribes the Book of Ecclesiastes to be linked to Sukkot. This is the Biblical Book that reminds us to appreciate all the aspects of life with times to be born and die, to laugh and mourn.
Sukkot and its link to nature is clearly a 21st century message that can be derived from this holiday, but I will leave that angle to our Bar Mitzvah boy for tomorrow.
However a theme that will certainly resonate with all of us when we see our sukkah is how fragile life can be, how transient our dwelling places are and how we must always keep our values in perspective. Rashbam, a 12th century commentator, the grandson of Rashi suggested that the sukkah should inspire us to gain perspective on the blessings we enjoy, lest we say in our hearts: “My own power and wealth have won this wealth for me.”
On this theme a story is told of Anshel Rothschild, the founding father of the European banking family, an observant Jew, who lived in the middle of 19th century Austria. With his vast fortune he had a close relationship with Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria.
From time to time the Emperor would send visitors to the luxurious and famous palace of Anshel Rothschild. It was the most lavish, luxurious and well-appointed palace in all of Austria, and everyone wanted to see its beauty and wealth.
During one visit Anshel took his guest, an important government official whose position was just under Emperor Franz Joseph, on a tour of the palace. He showed him room after room, and the guest was awed by the beauty of the gold, the silver, the furnishings, the chandeliers, the imported fabrics. Everything was a sight to behold. There existed nothing like it in all of Austria.
When Anshel passed a certain door, he continued walking, but the guest asked to be shown the room behind the door.
“I am sorry” said Anshel. “This is the one room in the palace that I cannot show you.”
“Why not?” asked the guest. I would love to see every nook and cranny of your remarkable palace.
“I simply cannot,” answered Anshel, and continued walking.
The tour concluded, and the official returned to his master, and reported everything he saw. The palace was even more than one could image. “However,” said the official to the Emperor, “there was one room that Anshel refused to show me.”
“Why not?” asked the Emperor.
“I do not know. But I can guess. You know how wealthy those Jews are. My theory is that in that room there is a magic money-making machine. That is why he is so wealthy. Behind that door must be a machine that creates the wealth of Anshel Rothschild.”
The Emperor did not know whether to believe his official, so he sent a second government official to see the palace of Anshel Rothschild. The second official came back with the same story. And a third, and a fourth.
This time the curiosity of Emperor Franz Joseph was greatly aroused, so he decided to go himself and visit the palace. Anshel took the Emperor for the same tour as he did all the other visitors from Franz Joseph’s government. And when they reached the “forbidden room,” the Emperor asked to go inside and see what was there.
Anshel explained that that was the one place he could not show anyone. After the Emperor insisted, Anshel gave in, and agreed to show the Emperor the secret room. He took out his keys, opened the door, and invited the Emperor to enter. Franz Joseph looked, and was amazed at what he saw. There, in a small room, was a simple pine box, and some plain white cloth on a table. That was all there was!
“What is this all about?” asked the Emperor.
“We Jews have strict rules about burial customs,” explained Anshel. When a person dies, he must be buried in a very simple coffin, a plain pine box. And his body must be enveloped in a plain white shroud. This is to maintain the equality of all God’s creatures. No one is permitted to be buried in a fancy, expensive coffin, or in luxurious clothing. Though some may live affluent lives, and others may suffer dire, abject poverty, in death all are equal.”
“But why is this here in this room?” asked the Emperor, impressed but still confused.
“At the end of each day, I come to this room, and view the coffin and the shrouds, and I am reminded that even though I have great wealth and power and I have important influence in the highest echelons of the Austrian Empire, I am still one of God’s simple creatures, and at the end of my life, this is the end I will come to like all of God’s other children. I do this lest after a day filled with high finance and major financial transactions, I think too highly of myself, and develop a bloated sense of myself.”
Franz Joseph was amazed, and in fact, he was speechless. His respect for Anshel Rothschild grew even greater than before. He never questioned the sincerity, honesty or integrity of Anshel again.
Sukkot is our multi-meaninged holiday. Let us rejoice in our festival and be inspired by its many messages.