The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 27 September, 2015.
Samuel Alexander, who was born in Australia in 1859, was taught Judaism in Sydney in the days when Rev. Alexander Barnard Davis was minister of the Great Synagogue there. As a young man, he moved to England, where he developed his thinking and became one of the great British philosophers of the early 20th century.
A professor of philosophy at Manchester University from 1894-1924, his metaphysical system is set out in a two-volume work, “Space, Time and Deity”, published in 1920. He might have been amused to find the title of his book in a rabbinical article many years later (even though the rabbinic writer was one of Davis’s successors in Sydney), but his three themes – if freely reinterpreted in conventional Orthodox terms – form the trilogy on which the festival of Sukkot is based.
• Space: There is a well-known thesis that for Judaism, holiness inheres in time rather than space, that Jews were more interested in history than geography. (Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Greece discovered the idea of cosmos, the world of space; Israel experienced history, the world of time.”)
Like all generalisations, the Jewish preference for time over space is not entirely true. The sukkah is evidence that places, not merely moments, are important in Judaism. Not only the sukkah – what about the synagogue and the beit midrash? A telling example is the Land of Israel, called by Edmond Fleg the “land in which God dwells,” and the city of Jerusalem, which, in the words of Elie Wiesel, “miraculously transforms each man into a pilgrim.”
• Time: In ancient Israel on Sukkot, the year’s final harvest was stored in makeshift shelters in which the workers found relief from the elements.
Originally, the harvest was celebrated with revelry and frivolity. When this apparently went too far and people overdid the merriment, it evoked stern rebukes from the prophets, who proclaimed: “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; let Me not hear the melody of your psalteries” (Amos 5:23). Consequently, the festival was elevated to a spiritual experience, in which the joy was transmuted into thankfulness to the Giver of the harvest.
The agricultural festivals all underwent a similar spiritualisation and transformation. With all the appreciation of space expressed above, one cannot deny that Judaism prefers the fluidity of time over the fixedness of space.
• Deity: The sukkah came to symbolise human appreciation of the bounties of the Almighty, and this became the overriding theme of the festival, even in ages and places where Jews did not or could not engage in agricultural pursuits, and where they hardly ever saw greenery or the sun. It was manifest even in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons were upside down. Imagine the effort required in the Antipodes to acquire the arba’ah minim, the four species of plants required for the festival’s observance.
Wherever Jews were, harvest symbols – palm, citron, myrtle and willow – were carried in procession and waved in the four directions of the compass, as well as up and down, to symbolize the encompassing bounty of the Creator.
Maimonides and the rationalists tried to present and justify God in abstract philosophical terms, but the Jewish people preferred to position the Almighty in a context of earthly and Jewish history.
Not so much the cosmological, teleological and ontological Deity, but the God who inspired the patriarchs, the God who redeemed Israel from bondage, the God who was with them in the wilderness, the God whom the chassidim called the Sweet Father, the God in whose presence they had their being. Most were unconcerned about the anthropomorphic implications of speaking of God in human terms, and were quite convinced that God rejoiced with them in times of celebration, and suffered with them when times were bad.
Over and above space, time and deity, the festival has a fourth and fifth element.
• Ethics: The rabbinic moralists derived ethical teachings from the four species. As all four plants are taken together, so a community needs the contribution of all its members; as some plants have fragrance while others have taste and some have both, so there are people who give society their gifts of mind, some who give gifts of heart, and some who give both.
• Psychology: The festival – especially the sukkah – has lessons for human psychology. As there is a maximum limit to the height of the sukkah, man should not to be too high and mighty. As there is a minimum limit, man should not abase himself and let the fates tread on him. As the walls must be able to withstand ordinary gusts of wind, so man should not let himself be broken by the events of life.
As the stars must be visible through the dark foliage of the roof covering, so man should be uplifted in spirit and not weighed down by negative forces or fears.