Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sukkot Heresy, Mitt Romney, and Northwest Rain

It is the Jewish holiday of "Sukkot," the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the "shalosh regalim," the three "legs" of a triad of festivals for which all Jews used to make pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Called in the Torah "the time of our rejoicing," it is a happy holiday where observant Jews build booths on our balconies and back yards, covered with cut tree branches or plants called "skach." There we "dwell" for seven days (eight in the diaspora), eating all our meals and, if at all possible, sleeping out there, too.

Our succa has cut fir branches on top, and walls of clear vinyl sheets so we can retain our view and the daylight. If the holiday doesn't sound peculiar enough already, it is in these temporary structures that we shake the "lulav," a giant asparagus-like combo of four types of organic material--myrtle, palm and willow branches, held with a lemon-esque fruit called an "etrog."

Our family's succa is decorated with garlands that can take the rain (it was my innovation to cut hanging door "curtains" styled of stars and colorful rings by Target for dorm rooms into separate garlands) and strings of summer patio-lights (little clusters of grapes, luminaria-style metal bulb-shades, glass spheres, all also from Target). We have shimmery foil accordion flowers hung on the far wall, tin foil and construction paper chains the kids made years ago (the paper one hung inside the window-wall that forms one of the succa walls). We have colorful posters in Hebrew describing the "ushpezin," the spiritual "guests" we welcome each day into the succa, and the crops mentioned in the Bible that grew in the Holy Land. Also, I've hung realistic soft-plastic grape clusters, apples, strawberries and acorns around the edges and from the cross-beams (no farther than three t'fachim--hand-breadths--from the ceiling). The rules for constructing a succa are all very precisely described in the commentaries. The decorations are a matter of personal custom and taste.

We're taught that we put together our huts to:

--enable us to recognize our vulnerability and reliance on God,

--associate this experience with the ultimate redemption of the Messiah in days to come, when humanity will dwell in peace within a giant succa (made from the skin of the Leviathan, whatever that will be!), and

--feel God's unconditional love and regard for us, similar to His enveloping the Jews of the exodus in the "ananay kavod," the "clouds of honor" that protected them from the elements and emphasized their unity as they traveled as a people toward the Promised Land.

Even having learned all of the above, and plenty more, in my many years of Jewish study, I will confess that while I enjoy this holiday (enormous amount of work preparing and hosting guests aside), it still strikes me as bizarre. The message of our reliance on God rather than an arrogant assumption that what we build is a "real" shelter, is valuable, and I guess I can see where going outside for a week might convey it better than simply having a picnic. But the lulav? OK, its species are said to represent various types of Jews, those who do mitzvot and don't; those who are knowledgeable in Torah, and not, but that sounds like an after-the-fact rationalization for a very strange ritual. Ultimately, I guess, it, like many of our mitzvot, is actually a test to see if we're willing to do commandments just because God told us to. I a heretic? is the oddness of Jewish commandments different from Mormon beliefs and practice that endanger Mitt Romney's presidential bid? Mormons have rationalizations and explanations for their theology and behaviors that seem weird, even wildly unacceptable, to the rest of us. And they're fully convinced that theirs is God's true religion for mankind, and they're willing to give two years of their lives as missionaries to convince others of it. But lots of Christians, for example, refuse to vote for Mitt Romney, an upstanding, patriotic, brilliant statesman, because his theology, (not his lifestyle, which is exemplary) is illogical. Dare I confess that I, too, find his faith a deterrent?

Yet I'm willing to quiver a lulav and etrog in a succa for a week, "blessing" God for sanctifying us with His commandment to wave it. And lulav shaking didn't seem to hurt Joe Lieberman's acceptability. Doesn't compute.

In any case, here in the Northwest, we have been deluged with rain, on and off. The three days of holiday so far--two of Sukkot followed by Shabbat--allowed us three festive meals with guests under the fir boughs. After a drippy soup course on Shabbat, however, the clouds let fly, and the thirteen of us grabbed our place-settings and ran for cover. All day today, rain has pelted our succa. The dahlia centerpiece is drooping, the cheerful tablecloth is sodden, two garlands hang lifeless, having come unattached at one end. The time of our rejoicing continues, though it would proceed more heartily on my part were the sun to emerge.

Catching up on the newspaper this morning, I read the front-page headline in the Seattle Times of a week ago, titled "An Ode To Gray," describing our morose weather over the past several months--typically the only time when our webbed feet could metamorphose into toes and our pasty bodies eagerly absorb a bit of Vitamin D. "The National Weather Service recorded not a single clear day in June at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport," the article began. "Zip. zed, nil, nada. July and August also offered a dreary parade of partly-cloudy this, and cloudy that, with drizzle thrown in... Should Puget Sound residents feel entitled to grouse? Yes. A mere 19 clear days were recorded all summer at Sea-Tac."

So, to my friends in the mossy Northwest, may you wave your Asparagus proudly in the sunshine, may your skach stay fresh, and your family gather in harmony as we continue the time of our rejoicing...


  1. For my take on the idea behind the arbah minim see

    Gut moed and chag sameach!

  2. I'm LDS and a supporter of Romney although I don't think the LDS issue cost him as much as the smears--specifically, false allegations of flip-flopping. I haven't found any allegation that withstands scrutiny. The problem is, the media and pundits didn't sufficiently scrutinize the charges. For instance, critics charge that Romney flip-flopped on the death penalty because as governor he didn't execute any criminals. However, Mass doesn't have the death penalty--something Romney had no control over. I discuss the other charges on a blog entry I wrote entitled 'demand more from the pundits' or something to that effect.