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Sukkot Ups and Downs

Shabbat Sukkot 5780, Rabbi Sam Cohon

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sukkot Sameiach and Mo’adim L’Simcha! They say that life imitiates art, but I think sometimes life imitates humor. You certainly have heard the ancient joke about Sukkot, possibly from me: a guy in New York City builds a sukkah on his fire escape. The landlord is incensed, and takes him to court, arguing that the sukkah is a totally inappropriate violation of his lease and the building code. The judge listens to the argument, and then asks the defendant, “Do you have a permit for that structure?” And the guy answers, “No, your Honor.” And Judge Feldman bangs down his gavel and orders, “That structure must be removed within ten days!”

So now, a true story: we are sitting in our beautiful Congregation Beit Simcha Sukkah on Monday morning, donated to our shul by Craig Sumberg as he leaves Tucson, and we are having kiddush and refreshments and doing the blessings for lulav and etrog and for sitting in the Sukkah and generally enjoying the fine weather, great company and relaxed feel of this wonderful festival when a small red vehicle pulls up with “Golder Ranch Fire District” stenciled on the side. And a man comes up to the door of Beit Simcha, and I go up to greet him, and he says his name is Bill and he is a fire inspector and he apologizes for interrupting our religious ceremonies. And I explain that it’s OK, this is a fun, upbeat kind of festival and less serious, and he asks if there are different kinds of Jewish religious holidays. I answer yes, and say that Yom Kippur last week was very serious indeed, but that Sukkot is much lighter and more relaxed and is called the season of our joy. And Bill says that he kind of recognizes me and maybe has been to some services I did and a bar mitzvah. And we have a pleasant conversation and it turns out he knows some very nice people I know.

And then he says that he has some additional questions about our usage of the building. I suggest he contact our landlords here, Larsen-Baker Associates. And, to make a long story shorter, I get a call Thursday morning from our building maintenance supervisor and he says, “Rabbi, we have to take down this lean-to you guys put up here.” And I say, “You can’t really do that right now, but we will take it down soon.” And the supervisor says, “When are you going to take it down?” And I answer, “Tuesday or Wednesday,” and he says, “We will probably get fined then.” And I say, “I think if we have to go to court, we will probably be OK…” And I start to think about which court it would go to, and if we could get the venue changed to one with one of the Jewish judges I know. And a friend suggests we put a fire-extinguisher very visibly in the Sukkah as a preventive measure, preventing both fires and possibility of having our Sukkah impounded by the Golder Ranch Fire District and the town of Oro Valley.

True story… And I’d like to publicly invite everyone to come by this coming Tuesday around 4pm and help take apart and store our fabulous Sukkah before we ran any further afoul of our industrious and principled fire inspector. The Sukkah certainly comes down easier than it goes up, by the way.

My friends, we are about to conclude this long fall holiday cycle on Monday with Shemini Atzeret. We will hold Yizkor services Monday morning, and then we will celebrate Simchat Torah with full hoopla on Monday night. To put it mildly, this has been a long, complicated month of holiday observances both serious and celebratory, our first time as a congregation going through the triathlon of Jewish fall festivals, and this Shabbat Sukkot weekend and its continuation through Tuesday provides a final flurry of festive flavor, capped off with the dancing and klezmer-inflected joy of the celebration of Torah.

You know, usually people associate the Jewish calendar month of Tishrei with the fall holidays, but in truth this period started well before that, in the last weeks of the month of Elul. Just to recap the experience of this time of extraordinary activity in our young synagogue, the season commenced with Selichot eight days before Rosh HaShanah, about a month ago, and has run through Rosh Hashanah, Tashlich, Kever Avot, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot to get us here. It is a time in which Jewish events and rituals follow each other with startling speed and in very close proximity.

I remember when I was working my way through UCLA serving as a very part-time cantor on weekends and holidays. My fraternity, AEPi, like all fraternities at UCLA then, had meetings every Monday night. One fall the schedule was much like ours this year, and in the way the holidays occurred I ended up missing the Monday meetings because I was conducting festival services each Monday for about a month. The guys in the fraternity gave me a very hard time and claimed I was inventing new holidays each week just so I could miss meetings… what was the name of that holiday again, Cohon? Shemini Atzeret? Do they have medication for that?

Well, look, any excuse to miss a meeting is a good thing, of course, but it was all legitimate. They are all real Jewish holidays, honest.

Now each of these holidays has its high points. In fact, every Jewish holy day has its fine features, and each has its supporters. But the one thing I am sure of is that there is not one single Jew for whom Shemini Atzeret is his or her favorite Jewish holiday.

So, what’s your favorite Jewish holiday? For many people it’s Passover, in spite of having to eat matzah—lots of friends and family, rituals and traditions and food and freedom. Many of us love Chanukah, especially children, with its great music and candles and magical quality of the miraculous. Some like Purim best; lots of folks mention Simchas Torah with its celebrations; others prefer Shabbat, for its regularity and rest. Many Jews will mention Rosh HaShanah, with the drama of the shofar; some even like Yom Kippur, best, believe it or not, with the gorgeous Kol Nidrei melody and the sense of deep holiness and personal growth. Shavuot gets a little bit of play from fans of cheesecake—the food, that is. And once in a while you find a person who, like me, thinks that Sukkot is the loveliest, most pleasant of Jewish festivals.

But never have I heard anyone say, “You know, the best Jewish holiday is Shemini Atzeret; I just couldn’t live with myself if I missed that one. The prayer for rain really gets me every time…”

And you know, that’s kind of a shame. Because Shemini Atzeret combines the themes that all the other fall holidays highlight, and it does so in a way that can connect us with the messages of each of those festivals meaningfully. And as close as it falls to the conclusion of the fall festival endurance contest, Shemini Atzeret serves to carry the meanings of this great season into the eleven months still to come.

Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day of assembly, in a ritual sense is nearly as holy as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it includes Yizkor, the prayers of memorial and remembrance that Yom Kippur incorporates; it is part of the great Thanksgiving festival of Sukkot, and so connects us with the natural world and the great concept of gratitude that is at the heart of religious living; and it has some of the joy of the festival of Simchat Torah, the celebrations that carry with them the simchah shel mitzvah into the non-holiday world that will follow for the next eight weeks of the Jewish year.

In a way, Shemini Atzeret is the most covenantal of all the fall festivals. At its heart is a ritual that is both agricultural and liturgical: the prayer for rain, Geshem. Sung in a unique melody, the prayer for rain enunciates the depth and beauty of the brit, the covenantal partnership we share with God for the maintenance and stewardship of the natural world.

Before we leave this sacred time of year for the more secular, more ordinary weeks and months to come, we have the opportunity tonight and tomorrow once more to thank God, and another double opportunity on Monday.

In Biblical times, both the First and Second Temples were dedicated on Sukkot, at this exact time of year. It was a time of great dedication to religious inspiration, thanksgiving and gratitude. Similarly, we have this one final period in which we can renew our commitment to live in sacred, covenantal partnership with God.

If we can do that, the fine potential of this early year holiday season will be realized in a year of goodness and blessing and holiness and joy. All sukkahs, all Sukkot, must eventually come down, and not all great beginnings lead to ultimate success. But we do know with certainty that if we can maintain and continually renew our focus on the sacred, we may earn the merit of our own good beginning to this 5780 year.

Shabbat Shalom—and Moadim l’simcha, chagim uzmanim l’sason.

Chag Sameiach.

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