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Gratitude and Faith

Torah Talk for Sukkot 5780

This week we read special selections from the Torah in honor of the holiday of Sukkot, which began last Sunday night and lasts for eight days. This season is an embarrassment of holiday riches for Jews, and the Torah readings reflect this.

Sukkot marks the great fall thanksgiving festival, the feast of Tabernacles or booths, and we are commanded to remember the transitory nature of our ancestors’ wanderings through the Wilderness of Sinai, as well as the transitory nature of our own lives. In the season of the fall harvest, when we eat the first and best of the produce of the natural world, we take a week to demonstrate our gratitude for the necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing. And in this week’s Torah reading we receive the mitzvah of building a Sukkah, a temporary Tabernacle, a booth or hut, outdoors, designed to last just a week—actually, eight days—to eat in and perhaps sleep in. We decorate it with the symbols of the harvest, fruits and vegetables, and enjoy a fall harvest festival to celebrate the goodness of the world God has given us.

It’s a great lesson in appreciating the gifts we have received, and appreciating the many good things we have. Gratitude is an experience that few of us can maintain for long, but it is the essential source of so much that is profoundly religious, and profoundly good.

So may it be for each of us in this week dedicated to gratitude.

But while gratitude and joy are the prevailing themes of the festival of Sukkot and its Torah readings, there is one special additional reading that we include on this festival that is not from the Torah itself, but instead from the latter stages of the Bible, the Ketuvim or Writings. Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, the beautiful Biblical book that is chanted on Shabbat Sukkot is perhaps the single most beautiful piece of literature in all history: succinct, poetic, gorgeous, and wise. It includes famous phrases that have become part of our language including “the sun also rises,” “there is nothing new under the sun,” “all rivers run to the sea and the sea is not full,” “for everything there is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven,” “the earth returns to the dust that it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

The conclusion of Ecclesiastes is simple but powerful. After a poetic search of wisdom and folly, a survey of what the world has to offer, the author writes, “The conclusion of the matter, all having been heard is to revere God, and keep the mitzvot, for that makes the complete human being.”

As autumn approaches, Kohelet reminds us that so much of what we do is vanity—“vanity of vanity, all is vanity” the book begins—and compels us to realize that God is our true source of meaning and beauty. At this joyous time of a year it is a sobering, but truly magnificent, reminder of all that really matters.

Even—perhaps especially—at seasons of joy and times of gladness, we need to remember that our greatest success comes from our integrity, and our belief.

Chag Samei’ach—may you be blessed with a festival of faith and joy!

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