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Sukkot

2 October 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

The weather is beautiful for the beginning of October, but Sukkot has not yet begun. I have found the walls of my sukkah, wooden fencing, that still seems to be in once piece. The roof has disappeared. I venture out to the Garden Centre and find a piece of stretchy trellis that I think will do. Next, to our cemetery in Willesden where Bill cuts me plenty of laurel which I pile into my car. I am ready to start building.

This is a small sukkah, not your pop-up tent that you stick in the middle of the garden, but a proper little hut which can fit 2 or 3 people, just like the ones the Israelites would have built out in the fields during the hot days of the harvest – somewhere to rest at night, where they could see the stars through the foliage covering the roof.

The Mishnah teaches us that a sukkah must have at least three walls. I survey my little building project. Yes, one of the walls is the back wall of my house, the other two are made of the wooden fencing, interleaved with branches. Is it large enough to contain a person’s head and most of their body? Definitely. And can I put a table in there, because after all this is supposed to be my dwelling place for the next seven days. A small, upturned flower-pot – does that count as a table? The Mishnah doesn’t answer the question.

Are the walls sturdy enough to withstand an ordinary wind? I don’t know yet, but as I wake the next morning, Erev Sukkot, the wind is up and it’s pouring with rain. The sukkah is still in one piece. I breathe a sigh of relief, no remedial work needed yet. And finally, the Mishnah requires the roof of the sukkah to provide more shade than sun. Sadly, the sun has disappeared, but I’m confident that it is well shaded and that if the sky were clear at night, you would be able to see the stars through its leaves.

The Mishnah adds another interesting statement on the kashrut of the sukkah. Even if your sukkah is me’doov’lelet, it is valid. My translation refers to a ‘disorderly sukkah’ – a strange kind of rendering. I look up the word in the appropriate dictionary and see that the word means something like ‘disorganised’ or ‘miserable looking.’

I grant you, my sukkah is small, but it isn’t disorderly and definitely not ‘miserable looking.’ It’s s’kach (greenery) makes it quite special and I feel very proud of it and hope for some autumn sunshine so that I can have my early morning cup of tea standing inside it.

This is my favourite festival, even when it’s pouring with rain as it is today. I love this time of the year, saying farewell to the summer, contemplating the beauty of the dying year, the transient fragility of all life. And it points the way towards a world in which we are mandated to care for the environment, rather than consume and exploit it and, with its custom of welcoming ushpizim (guests), it reinforces the mitzvah of hospitality, welcoming guests and strangers into our midst, into our sukkah and into our society when they have nowhere else to go.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach, 

Alexandra Wright

 

Simchat Torah - Turn it over, and turn it
over again

 

9 October 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

An ex-literature professor and author Thomas Foster has made a fruitful career writing instructive books about how we ought to read poetry [1]. His advice includes:

  • Read the words and understand the literal level first.
  • Obey all punctuation, including its absence. Punctuation help us to understand how poets understood it when they wrote it.
  • Read the poem aloud. There are echoes within the poem that you won’t hear reading silently.
  • Read the poem again. It helps readers to understand hidden undercurrents of the poem’s meaning.

This week we celebrate two Jewish festivals - Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Only Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Bible, but its exact function is unclear. In Second Temple times, it was a day for the ritual cleansing of the altar in the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple, this function became obsolete. The lack of clear definition may have triggered the creation and development of Simchat Torah, a celebration of the conclusion of one and the beginning of another annual cycle of readings from the Torah.

On Simchat Torah we read the very last verse of the book of Deuteronomy and the first verse of the book of Genesis with no pause in between. It emphasises the continuity of our tradition and ongoing learning process which Judaism prescribes to us. It is never too late or too early to begin this tradition.

In the famous Mishnah, Ben Bag Bag said: ‘Turn it over, and turn it over [again], for all is therein. And look into it; And become grey and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.’ [2]

Each year we read the same text over and over again, read it aloud in front of the congregation, try to understand its lessons, pay attention to every detail in the text, its punctuation and every word. This text is the symbol of the Jewish people and the connection to our collective wisdom. This text elevates us beyond time and creates the link with past and future generations.

As we begin the new cycle of the reading of the Torah, I hope that it can bring us the sense of security and stability, connect us to the source of wisdom and hope, and give us peace.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

May this be God’s will.

Igor

[1] Please read the full article here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/20/how-to-read-poetry-like-a-professor-thomas-foster

[2] Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:21

Sun, 25 October 2020 7 Cheshvan 5781