For the last few years, Rosh Hashanah has coincided with another time of renewal. Both invite people with shared interests and commitments in to connect with each other. Both involve places of worship which offer the chance to begin afresh- to build on what came before and is yet to start over.
I am of course talking about the release of the new iPhone, a biannual commercial phenomenon that commands front page column inches and global attention as eager fans and critics wait to discover how the tech giant has combined metal and glass to create the latest must-have.
The changes are often incremental, but the minute the new model comes out, a whole retail generation of phones become ‘old’. The existence of the new causes a relative change of state- though nothing is diminished in what came before, simply by the existence of something newer, the older model is depreciated.
The market needs new; without it, so we are told, things stagnate. In the Reform festival machzor, Rabbi Maurice Davis remarks on a similar situation in the auto industry. Writing in the 1960s, he says:
“Our social structure is such that we both simultaneously appreciate the new, and depreciate the old. Consumer products are not built to last. They are built to depreciate, to wear out, to be discarded or traded-in. They carry with them what is called a built-in obsolescence, for they are designed for impermanence. A product that would last a lifetime is not a product our producers would produce. The goal may be a satisfied customer, but that satisfaction must not last too long…”
Designed for impermanence. That’s a familiar descriptor for this festival of Sukkot- which we are now in the intermediate days of. Sukkot is a celebration of newness, of the harvest. It’s a time when the first fruits of the crop were brought to the temple in thanks and celebration. The capacity to create from the earth, to enjoy bountiful crops and to eat and drink that which you have grown is a heady experience. There is no end to the wonder that is the capacity to create new life, and the experience for our ancestors of travelling to the temple with carts laden with the fruits of their fields must’ve been a majestic one. Forget satisfaction, this is a festival about pride, joy, and plenty.
But there’s a catch. Unlike a child’s first painting, stuck forever to the fridge in a celebration, or the first deal in a new job, celebrated down the pub, the first pay check spent on a shiny new suit or bag, these first fruits of our labour were not for keeping. The fruits went to the temple, as if to caution against self-aggrandising and to keep our creator-egos in check. We made it, we have it, we must celebrate it, but we can’t keep it. Or rather, we can only keep it after we are forced to experience the feeling of giving it away.
Harvests are a celebration of newness and plenty, and Sukkot is no exception. New things make us feel special. Gifts are wonderful. But the appeal of the new is seductive; the leaves soon whither, the fruits go sour, winter comes, and we need something else to get us through the dark months ahead.
The traditional text that accompanies Sukkot is the book of Ecclesiastes- Kohelet. The author, looking back at his life reflects:
“I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine…
I made myself great works; I build myself houses; I planted myself vineyards; I made myself gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit; I made myself pools of water, to water there from the wood springing up with trees; I acquired men-servants and maid-servants, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of herds and flocks, above all that were before me in Jerusalem; I gathered for myself also silver and gold, and treasure such as kings and the provinces have as their own; I got myself men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, women very many. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom stood me in stead.
And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them; I withheld not my heart from any joy, for my heart had joy of all my labour; and this was my portion from all my labour. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”
The author’s regret is that he chased what he continually refers to as hevel– traditionally translated as vanity, but perhaps more accurately as breath or transience. He’s struggling to find meaning, having invested his energy in things that he has come to believe are immaterial, futile endeavours. Like an ancient echo of our contemporary culture, he recognises the exhausting pursuit of material goods, and the increasing dissatisfaction that he felt as he acquired more and more, and still didn’t have enough.
One reason offered as to why this text of Kohelet is paired with Sukkot has to do with its designation as zeman simchateinu- the time of our rejoicing. Kohelet concludes that what he has learnt from his life is that the answer is to live in the moment, to enjoy each day, to find joy and remember that ultimately all is just breath. Kohelet exhorts his readers to enjoy happiness, to have a glass of wine, and to remember that it is happiness and love that persists when all else is gone.
Zeman simchateinu. Not the harvest, not the feast, not the pilgrimage, nor anything that is contingent on the material, but the time. That which arrives and exists regardless of what we have.
Sukkot is a time of plenty, and one where we are told that we should rejoice in it, but it’s also a time of our fragility. The mitzvah to lasheiv ba’sukkah, to sleep out in a flimsy structure, takes us outside our material security and into a dwelling place where the walls that keep us safe from the outside world are taken away. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains that in doing this, “we return to the nation’s original condition, to the experience of wandering and deficiency, wherein there is only faith and hope for the future, but nothing substantial to the present… This return to the primordial point, to the place from which things begin, is what enables one to attain joy… The less he believes in “I deserve better” and the more he experiences the original condition of deficiency and exile, the more he will appreciate all the bounty and attain happiness from it.”
On Sukkot we are allowed to celebrate ‘stuff’, to celebrate and enjoy our material bounty, but only with the consciousness of the limits of what it can give us. In order to live in the world of the material, we need to be reminded that it is hevel, transient.
“Everyone must have two pockets”, taught Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha, “so that he can reach into the one or the other according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created’, and in his left, ‘I am but dust and ashes’.”
Sukkot asks us to reach into both pockets at the same time. It asks us to both celebrate our gifts, our capabilities, and our material blessings, and at the same time remember that ha’kol hevel; everything is transient, dust, breath. Joy, suggests Sukkot, lies in freeing ourselves from the idea that value is only in the stuff that we can buy or make; so that we can step off the treadmill of life and enjoy each moment for what it is and not how it compares to the newer model.
Deborah Blausten LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.