Sukkot as a Paradigm for a Post-COVID Judaism

I have always been taken by the section of this week’s Torah portion of Emor that deals with Sukkot.  That is, in part, because back to back it tells us two different versions of how to practice Sukkot.  The first account is Leviticus 23:33-38, which reads:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days.  The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days, present food offerings to the Lord, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the Lord. It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work. (“‘These are the Lord’s appointed festivals, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies for bringing food offerings to the Lord—the burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings required for each day. These offerings are in addition to those for the Lord’s Sabbaths and in addition to your gifts and whatever you have vowed and all the freewill offerings you give to the Lord.”

This presentation of Sukkot is one that focuses on the communal gathering around the conclusion of the harvest.  It includes days of sacred assembly and requires all of Israel to unite together in its observance.

We then, immediately thereafter, have a second section that describes Sukkot in a very different way.  Leviticus 23:39-43 read:

 “‘So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days; the first day is a day of sabbath rest, and the eighth day also is a day of sabbath rest.  On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters. so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”

The first and last days of the holiday are no longer about sacred assembly, but about Sabbath rest.  The observances are not about sacrificial offerings, but personal and familial practices in celebration of Sukkot.

I have always understood these two different presentations of the holiday of Sukkot as teaching us the difference between how the holiday was observed when people were able to gather together in the Temple and when people needed to observe it on their own, without the opportunity for sacrificial offerings.  One version is what you do when you can gather together, but when we can’t gather together, there is still a practice that is at least as meaningful (if not more meaningful).

As I read this portion this week, however, I can’t help but take this idea a step farther.  These two sections on Sukkot are here to teach us that when we can’t gather together, we cannot just do what we always did in a new way.  But, in very point if fact, the rituals must change to require far more personal effort and engagement.

Until earlier this year, we always had centralized locations to gather to pray, to learn, and to gather.  Now, when we can longer do so in the way to which we have become accustomed, so many of us continue doing the same work, just in a virtual way.  We offer worship services as we always did, just over a live-stream.  We teach our same classes, but instead of handouts, we share the texts on our screens.

What we have not yet come to realize is what Leviticus is teaching us.  That when we cannot physically gather together, the replacement cannot be the same programs but from a distance.  They need to be replaced with rituals and practices that require greater personal engagement and participation from all.  The Israelites had to go out and collect the four species and bring them together themselves.  They needed to build a temporary structure and live in it for a week.  They had to take a deeper personal responsibility for their religious lives.

When the Second Temple period was coming to an end, synagogues began to pop up so that those unable to gather in Jerusalem could gather simultaneously with the offering being brought in Jerusalem.  That was the first stage of transitioning Judaism into the world of prayer rather than sacrifice.  Once the Temple was destroyed, however, the rabbis realized that a “simulcast” of sacrifice was not going to work in their new reality.  New rituals that required deeper personal engagement and commitment, were created to sustain Judaism into its next stage.

As we reflect on how to respond to this new reality, we cannot simply simulcast what we did before.  We need to require and inspire individuals to become more personally engaged in their Jewish spiritual lives. Instead of simply live-streaming our services, we should be providing greater opportunities and inspiration for personal practice, rather than simply turning services into the movies.

This new reality is painful and challenging but also represents an opportunity for all of us to re-imagine what is possible for Judaism.  A Judaism that is familiar but more relevant and practical for our current situation.  The future of Judaism is calling, but only if all of us are willing to answer the call will it come to its greatest fruition.

About the Author
Eytan Kenter serves as the Senior Rabbi of Kehillat Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Ottawa, Ontario.
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