The following sermon is from the first day of Sukkot 5780:
“We would like to acknowledge that we are in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People.”
Shortly after moving to Canada several years ago to assume my pulpit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was heartened to observe that most all civic events began with such an acknowledgement of territory. I was immediately struck by the prevalence of public reflection upon the very disturbing treatment of the First Nation communities during the period of the original settlement of Europeans in “the True North.” Especially when compared to its neighbour to the south (i.e. us), it is refreshing to see Canada make at least some efforts to acknowledge publicly its dark origins.
When I lived in Halifax, I was very moved to meet and learn with Membertou First Nation Elder Danny Paul, who kindly gifted me with “We Were Not The Savages,” his masterful and devastating history of the fate of his people. Reading the book opened my eyes both to the unspeakable violence and cruelty inflicted upon the Mi’kmaq community by their British colonizers (including province-sponsored Scalp Bounty proclamations), and also to the remarkably sophisticated and progressive culture and values embodied by the Mi’kmaq people. Elder Paul’s understanding of the ways in which rampant western-European greed and racism played a role in the dismantling of a rich civilization feels especially relevant to our times, and specifically, to our current holiday of Sukkot, a holiday which reconnects us with the land and our fellow travelers. How fitting that today Princeton is commemorating its first-ever Indigenous Peoples’ Day, honouring the plight of the original inhabitants of this incredible land.
Sukkot is a holiday in which we orient ourselves outwards, both socially and environmentally. Our sages teach (BT Sukkah 55b) that the fact that the number of bulls sacrificed in the Holy Temple over the 7 days of Sukkot adds up to 70, which, according to Rabbinic tradition is the number of ‘the nations of the world,” indicates that on Sukkot, we pray not only for our own fate, but also for the fate of all of humanity. Furthermore, Sukkot requires us to venture out physically as well: After luxuriating within the comforting confines of our own introspective cocoons over the High Holidays, Sukkot demands that we dwell in the open; it is a harvest holiday that grounds us in lived, material realities, and invites us to reflect on the fleeting, but also joyous, nature of our mortal existence as part of the natural world that surrounds us. .
Famously known in the Torah as “zman simhateinu,” the time of our rejoicing, Sukkot marks the end of the harvest season, the moment in which we) are commanded to rejoice as we reap the literal fruits of our labour. The Talmud (BT Pesahim 109a), building upon Biblical descriptions of the holiday’s observance, such as those found in Nehemiah 8, further instructs us to rejoice with potent potables, colourful clothes, and giving food to those in need. But perhaps those of us who are not farmers can find other reasons to rejoice on this holiday that may be more relevant to our non-agrarian lives.
Sukkot is also biblically referred to as “hag ha’Asif,” the gathering festival. On a literal level, we can read this as referring the agricultural season it marks, but I think the joy and gathering are deeply connected through the mitzvah we read of in the Torah reading from the first two days of Sukkot – specifically, the mitzvah of pe’ah and leket as described in Lev. 23:22.
In reaping the fruit of our fields, we are commanded to leave the fruits of the corners for those who need it most – the poor and the stranger. Especially telling in this verse is G-d’s description of the land as specifically “ארצכם,” “your land,” with the “your” being written in the 2nd person plural. In precisely the moment in which we might be filled with a sense of pride and perhaps even a bit of arrogance at having completed a successful harvest, G-d pulls us back down to holy earth and reminds us that the land is not truly ours until we acknowledge it is truly all of ours and that it is ours to share, in joy.
Joy is the operative term here – the giving we do, such as in the year of shemita, as recounted in Deuteronomy 15:10, must not be simply giving, it must be joyous giving.
This is a lesson not only in the functional mechanics of being committed to sharing our bounty, but also instructs us as to the very spirit in which we are to perform these mitzvot. One can easily go through the motions of giving to those in need, but feeling the underlying motivation behind these acts raises our intention to the next level. On Sukkot, we are challenged to overcome our internalized petty greed and ego and share what we have with others in a spirit of joy.
Two of the most problematic aspects of interpersonal relations are jealousy and greed. The cause of the very first murder in the Torah — when Cain killed his brother because he was jealous that Abel’s sacrifice was, apparently, more pleasing to G-d — jealousy and greed have remained among the deadliest forces in our world.
Jealousy and greed, the toxic by-products of unchecked ego, are essential, inherent flaws of mortal humans. We try, in vain, to overcome and compensate for the limitations of our mortal lives by means of “having,” whether through material gains or by vying for power in the futile attempt to assert control in a life characterized by a fundamental lack of ultimate control
We even have projected our own jealously upon G-d. Part of the way the Torah anthropomorphises G-d is to describe G-d as a so-called jealous G-d. How did Moses persuade G-d not to destroy the whole of the Jewish people when they rebelled against G-d during their long trek in the desert? By appealing to an imagined Divine ego: “what would the other nations say of your power if you were to destroy the Children of Israel whom you brought out of Egypt??”
I think often of how the final of the Ten Commandments — which proscribes jealousy — so radically departs from the other nine commandments. The other commandments all concretely refer to specific positive or negative actions that impact our relationship with either G-d or other people. But when we are commanded not to be jealous or covet, there is a sudden, dramatic shift, wherein we are asked to alter our fundamental perspective and attitude. The 10th commandment, in this way, supersedes all others; it demands that we do the very difficult spiritual work of fundamentally transforming ourselves, beginning with our perspectives, emotions, and attitudes.
The great 18th century Hasidic leader Rebbe Yechiel Michal of Zolotchov explained that the 10th commandment is not actually so much a commandment as it is an assurance of a Divine reward. If one fulfills the first nine commandments with all of one’s heart, G-d promises us that we will not want anything else and thus not succumb to coveting. While we may choose to work harder to attain more, we must also learn limits and to be content with what we have.
Just at the time on our Jewish ritual calendar when we might fall into the temptation of gloating over that which we think we “own,” or taking too much pride in something we have planted or accomplished, the Torah reminds us that we are obligated to share what we have with the most vulnerable of social categories, the poor and the stranger.
Sukkot comes each year after the long period of introspection that is the Days of Awe to remind us that we must now turn outward. We are reminded that the land and its bounty is not our exclusive property, but rather a gift given by G-d to all of us: the land is our land: a shared gift of G-d to all of us. In admitting that this land is not mine, I am acknowledging and celebrating that it is ours, and specifically yours.
What sukkot is ultimately about is finding joy in the those most vulnerable spaces. To paraphrase the Levush (Rabbi Mordecai Jaffee) commenting on OH 663:2, Sukkot is our time for gratitude for all that which G-d has provided us. During this holiday, we thank G-d for the earth that holds us and affirm the sacred, joyous connections we each share with each other and with the earth itself. What bolsters us is not the flimsy, ephemeral structure of the sukkah, but our love of G-d and of our fellow-travelers, which, when it is genuine, is eternal. So despite the shortening of days this time of year, reading from the very sobering book of Ecclesiastes, and inhabiting often unstable structures and exposing ourselves to the elements outside, our holiday is brimming with the joy of sharing.
In the words of Ecclesiastes 11:2, “distribute portions to seven or even to eight, for you cannot know what misfortune may occur on earth” (see also BT Eruvin 40b). Our time, and tragically even the earth itself, seems to have an end date – Sukkot is our opportunity lovingly to share our bounty and to rejoice in that sacred sharing. And in that joyous sharing with each other, let us remember and try to help save the earth that holds us all.