Wednesday, 12 Oct 2011

Written by Esther Hugenholtz

Embracing the Elements

I have a confession to make. I am a rather bad Dutchwoman, my love for tulips and cheese notwithstanding. The reason why I fail to live up to the hardy reputation of my countrymen is that I hate winter.

I detest the cold that seeps into your bones and the darkness that shuts down the days. No matter how many scarves, hats, gloves and coats I put on, winter still overcomes me.

My discomfort for winter sets in during high summer. As soon as the 21st of June – the longest day of the year – has passed, I bitterly remark to myself that it’s downhill from here. The days will only get shorter and there is no cause for optimism until the year swings back to April.

I know I am not the only one. Frustrations with our dismal climate become all the more pronounced during Sukkot. While our fellow Jews in Israel are enjoying bright days and balmy nights in their sukkot, there is a near-definite chance that we will be shivering in ours, coats on, umbrellas at the ready.

As much as I like to complain about the weather (which I believe is not only a Dutch cultural trait but also a British one!) I also realise that my negative attitude is not constructive. It doesn’t lift my winter blues; on the contrary. Nor does it allow me to cultivate what Abraham Joshua Heschel would call ‘radical amazement’ as Nature unfolds before our eyes. So this year, as part of my Rosh haShanah resolutions, I have decided to take a different attitude and embrace the rain, wind, snow and ice that autumn and winter bring.

Luckily, my anti-winter depression programme finds ample support in our Jewish tradition. It is a public secret that our faith and culture, proud ethical monotheists we may be, is deeply rooted in Nature. The Jewish calendar gently turns with the wheel of the year as our harvest festivals usher in new seasons. Our liturgy acknowledges this when we start adding ‘mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem’ – ‘He who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall’ in our Amidah.
Furthermore, it is the festival of Sukkot that addresses our complex feelings about the fading year. Even in balmy and sunny Israel, the rainy season starts soon after. We beseech the Eternal for rain with our lulav and etrog (a ‘pagan’ ritual if there ever was one!) and in the Mediterranean world rain is seen as a life-bringer rather than as a nuisance. Even so, Israel knows cold, biting weather and Jerusalem frequently receives snow. Snow and ice were not unknown to our Israelite forebears as mention of these is made in Psalms and Tanakh.

It is exactly this tension, this liminal space inhabited by Sukkot that makes it such a beautiful festival. We have just come out of the intense soul-searching and ecstasy of the High Holy Days. The teki’ah gedolah has sounded and the Gates of Repentance are closed (even if some insist that they are still open a crack until Hoshannah Rabba). There is palpable and happy relief in the air as we move from Yom Kippur into the building of our Sukkah. The transcendent becomes immanent, the spiritual is actualised in our physical world. It is not for naught that the Rabbis term Sukkot the ‘z’man simchateinu’, the ‘season of our joy’. We rejoice in our festively bedecked sukkot. We enjoy good food and good company as we welcome both loved ones and strangers into our rickety, temporal but happy homes.

But Sukkot also knows a darker sphere, a more contemplative and existential side. Our sukkot are not only homes to aromatic foliage and colourful decorations but also to our vulnerability. As the Eternal ‘causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall’ around us, we huddle around the sukkah dinner table in our winter coats, rubbing warmth back into our hands. This vulnerability is intentional, of course, as the festival does not only point to the turning of our season but also hearkens back to the exposed vulnerability that our newly-emancipated ancestors felt after they exchanged Egyptian slavery for the wilderness.

To continue this line of thought, the Rabbis instituted the book of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) as the megillah to be read on the festival. Koheleth also inhabits this tension between joyful exuberance (‘lech echol b’simcha lachmecha u’shteh v’lev tov yenecha’ – ‘eat your bread in joy, drink your wine in gladness’, Ecc. 9:7) and existential crisis (‘hevel havalim, hacol havel’ – ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, Ecc. 1:2). A cynical view would be to see the festival as schizophrenic. How can we hold such emotional polarities in one experience? But we can also see it as transformative and transitional.

Sukkot is helping us face the turning of the seasons, the withering leaves, the gathering darkness, the penetrating cold, a brush with a dying world. Our tradition is, if anything, both hopeful and realistic in its embracing of life in the Here and Now. In a sense our sukkah poses the existential question of our impermanence and vulnerability but also provides the answer in radical amazement, acceptance, community and love. Koheleth says that ‘all is vanity’ but answers his own cynicism with keen wonder as he describes the natural world with a scientist’s eye and a poet’s quill: ‘the sun rises and the sun sets… the wind goes towards the south and turns to the north; it whirls about continually… all the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full and from where the rivers came, they shall return’ (Ecc. 1:5-8).

We inhabit a beautiful world, fragile though it is. Sukkot teaches us that even the cold and darkness is something to be embraced and a marvel to behold. I shall look forward to this winter then. Bundle up, stay warm, make yourself a hot cup of tea and enjoy the company of loved ones. Not a bad way to spend the festivals and the dark days to come.

Chag Sukkot sameach!


Esther Hugenholtz
October 2011



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.