R. TedescoWhen I was in first and second grade, I attended Sunday school at Temple Emanuel in Newton, my home town. I remember the holiday of Sukkot, which occurred in late September or early October, five days after the most solemn holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Our teachers built a strange hut or booth on the temple lawn. It was more or less open to the elements, not really much of a shelter, with walls on three sides and a make-shift roof. I recalled that the roof and walls were covered with corn stalks or branches-something like that-and with fruits and gourds. In Hebrew, a booth is called a "sukka." The plural form of the word "sukka" is "sukkot," so the holiday of Sukkot is translated to Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles. It is also known as the Feast of Ingathering because it was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel, when the Hebrew people traveled from near and far to the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a time of great joy and celebration, after the solemn days of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur.
Inside the sukka the teachers at Temple Emanuel constructed, there was enough room for a good size table and some chairs. I remember celebrating Sukkot one warm autumn day. My classmates and I shared apple juice, muffins and cornbread inside the sukka. I understood this to be some kind of Jewish Thanksgiving, although it came much earlier than the American Thanksgiving. When I was in third grade, my family switched to Temple Israel in Boston, a Reform Jewish temple that didn't celebrate Sukkot, which is considered a minor holiday by many Jews in this country.
It wasn't until I became a Unitarian Universalist and taught Sunday school at the UU Church in Brockton that I again celebrated Sukkot. It was great fun building a sukka with my class in the backyard of the Brockton church, following the instructions of our "Holidays and Holy Days" curriculum. On Saturday, another teacher and I constructed a sturdy wooden frame. On Sunday morning, the children and I decorated the frame with the cornstalks and fall produce bought the day before at a local farmstand. Then we ate our snacks under the leafy roof, but didn't stay too long because it was rather chilly. Obviously, this was a festival meant for a much warmer climate. The passage in Leviticus instructs the people to live in booths for seven days, but I think that would be out of the question in New England, except if one was really "into" fall camping.
Digging a little deeper, I have learned that this ancient Jewish holiday, dating back to the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem is not exactly equivalent to the American Thanksgiving, although they certainly share some common elements. Both holidays are joyous and praise God for bountiful harvests. But Sukkot, being the merger of an older pagan agricultural festival and cultic rituals around the Temple in Jerusalem is more complex and richly textured in symbolism and meaning. The Jerusalem Temple, you may recall, is where the ancient Hebrews believed that God dwelt and where people could communicate most directly with him, invoking his blessings on them.
As with other Jewish holidays, the holiday of Sukkot lasts eight days with the first and last being the most holy. As you recall from the reading of Leviticus, the people are commanded to do no work, but to gather in holy convocation. All the days of the festival, the Hebrew people were to dwell in their booths, literally eating and sleeping there. This was rooted in the old practice of farm families and laborers dwelling in booths during the harvest season so they could spend less time traveling between their villages and the fields and orchards each day and gather the crops quickly. The festival of Sukkot occurred just after the fall harvest and before the rainy season in the Middle East. However, if the rains came early, the people celebrating the festival were allowed to seek more secure shelter. This was, after all, supposed to be a fun holiday, not a chore or a hardship.
The rabbis in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. adapted the holiday to the new circumstances of the Jews in the Diaspora. The rabbis specified exactly what how the service was to be conducted and what meaning was to be given to the observance. You may be aware that the synagogues replaced the Temple in Jerusalem as the center of Jewish worship in the Diaspora. Verse 40 in our reading in Leviticus reads: "On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days." The rabbis gave more details about the plants to be used in the Sukkot service. They were one branch each of palm and willow and three branches of myrtle, bound together in a kind of bouquet. In Hebrew, a palm is a "lulav." Each celebrant had their own bouquet, which was to be held in the right hand. In the left hand was a branch of citron, called "estrog" in Hebrew. The congregation was to march around the synagogue each day singing "Hosannah." In the time of the Temple, water libations were made and prayers were offered to invoke a plentiful rainfall for the next growing season. After the destruction of the Temple, the water libation was discontinued. More emphasis was placed on God's saving powers, recalling the salvation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. As you heard in the passage from Leviticus, God commanded: "You shall dwell in booths for seven days... that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God." [Lev. 23-42-43] The Jews of the Diaspora also sought God's help and protection in their present, often difficult situation in strange lands and among hostile people.
As we have seen, the holiday of Sukkot is not only a festival of thanksgiving for a bountiful fall harvest, but a festival to praise God for his savings acts of protection and liberation of his people. Since biblical times, the themes of God's deliverance of the people of the divine covenant from bondage and oppression and, later, in the Christian tradition, of God's works of salvation in the world, have been enduring ones in our common heritage. This message must have also been a part of the Pilgrim's celebration of Thanksgiving in the New World. During their feast, they not only praised God for their food and their friendship with the Wompanoags, but undoubtedly praised God for delivering them safely from the religious persecution they suffered in Europe, their "Egypt," to their New Jerusalem.
In our times, too, we pray for God to help those who are struggling to end hatred and suffering, tyranny and oppression. We pray that God guides and protects them in their search for liberation, peace and justice. And we, too, celebrate when these are achieved anywhere in the world. Let our thoughts, hopes and prayers tonight be with the Israelis and Palestinians, who are struggling to end their ancient animosities and to craft a peaceful settlement in a shared homeland. And let our thoughts, hopes and prayers be with the homeless men, women and children in our nation, who need the sheltering of more than temporary booths. Furthermore, let us work to extend the blessings of a full and abundant life to all in our land. This year, let us bring the message of Sukkot into our American Thanksgiving.
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R. M. Fewkes
"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to
its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave
them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 23:22)
The great medieval mystic, Meister Eckhardt, is noted to have once said, "If the only prayer you ever utter is 'Thank you!', it will be enough." I've always appreciated Meister Eckhardt's comforting words. They even give me a sense of relief. It was old St. Paul, I believe, who told us to pray without ceasing. Well, I know that I fall far far short of that admonition, but I do know that from time to time I feel deeply and authentically grateful for the blessings that have come my way. Not always, mind you, but sometimes, and it is comforting to know that the simple prayer of thank you, whether uttered or simply felt, may be enough in God's eyes.
I've been thinking about Meister Eckhardt's simple prayer of gratitude in terms of the meaning of the Thanksgiving season. Is it enough to simply feel thankful for one's blessings and to say so? On one level I would say, certainly, it is enough, if it comes from the heart. But on another level I would say, it may be enough, but it is hardly sufficient to fulfill the full meaning of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is both an attitude and a response, it is both faith and works. The writer of the Book of James said, "Faith without works is dead." Likewise, thanks without giving is no thanks at all. Thanksgiving has both a subjective and objective side. The subjective attitude is necessary, but not sufficient, to express the full meaning of thanksgiving.
I am impressed by the verse from Leviticus which noted that the ancient Hebrews were told to leave the remnants of their harvest for the poor and the stranger in their midst. Their harvest festival of Sukkot, which has at least metaphorical links to our secular celebration of Thanksgiving, was not complete if the people of Israel gathered their harvest and kept it all for themselves. Gratitude without sharing was no gratitude at all. There was also the tradition of the 50th Jubilee Year, in which the people of Israel were admonished to forgive all financial debts and obligations of service to one another and to permit every citizen to reclaim their land and property free of all liens and accumulated debts. There is some question as to whether the ancient Hebrews ever put this Jubilee Year of Celebration into actual practice, but they at least thought well enough of the idea to record the suggestion for posterity. Some have suggested that First World Nations put the concept into practice for the millennium by forgiving Third World Nations their financial debts. It probably won't fly, but it would certainly be a nice way to put the giving back into Thanks-Giving.
This ancient Hebrew tradition of sharing resources and forgiving debts reminds me of this lovely prayer from the hand of Abigail Van Buren which we said together at First Parish last Sunday:
We thank thee for food and remember the hungry.
We thank thee for health and remember the sick.
We thank thee for friends and remember the friendless.
We thank thee for freedom and remember the enslaved.
May these remembrances stir us to service,
That thy gifts to us may be used for others.
Our materialistic secular culture elevates getting over giving to an inordinate degree. When Christmas rolls around the first thing the kids ask one another is, "Whad ya get?" No one ever thinks to ask, "Whad ya give?" Profit and self-interest take precedence over sharing and compassion. We accumulate stuff and stuff and more stuff, and when we gather 'round the Thanksgiving board we stuff the turkey and then stuff ourselves to the gills and then some. I got a laugh out of this poetic rendition of "Twas The Night of Thanksgiving" which I simply could not resist sharing with you since it makes my point with a chuckle:
'Twas the night of Thanksgiving, but I just couldn't sleep.
I tried counting backwards, I tried counting sheep.
The leftovers beckoned--the dark meat and white,
But I fought the temptation with all of my might.
Tossing and turning with anticipation,
The thought of a snack became infatuation.
So I raced to the kitchen, flung open the door,
And gazed at the fridge full of goodies galore.
I gobbled up turkey and buttered potatoes,
Pickles and carrots, beans and tomatoes.
I felt myself swelling so plump and so round,
Till all of a sudden, I rose off the ground!
I crashed through the ceiling, floating into the sky
With a mouthful of pudding and a handful of pie.
But I managed to yell as I soared past the trees...
Happy eating to all! Pass the cranberries please!
If we can remember that we are celebrating Thanks-Giving, not Thanks-Getting, and if we can reclaim the attitude and actions expressed in the ancient Hebrew celebration of Sukkot which rejoiced in the harvest and remembered the needs of the poor and the stranger, and also recapture the Jubilee sentiment of forgiving one another our accumulated debts, material and spiritual, then perhaps, we can say with Meister Eckhardt that a simple prayer of "thank you" honestly expressed in word and in deed, will be enough. In fact, it will be more than enough, abundant and overflowing with grace and love made manifest. May it be so.