Samuel Alexander, who was born in Sydney in 1859 and moved to England, was one of the great British philosophers of the early 20th century. His metaphysical system is set out in his “Space, Time and Deity”, published in 1920.
He might have been amused to find the title of his book in a d’var Torah all these years later, but his three themes of Space, Time and Deity in fact 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.
Like all generalisations, it is not quite true. The sukkah is evidence that places, not merely moments, are important in Judaism.
Time: In ancient Israel, the final harvest of the year was gathered into makeshift shelters in which the workers found relief from the elements.
Originally, the harvest was celebrated with revelry and frivolity. Due to the stern rebukes of 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), the festival was elevated into a contained spiritual experience, in which the joy was transmuted into thankfulness to the Giver of the harvest.
Deity: The sukkah came to symbolise human appreciation of the bounties of the Almighty, and this became the theme of the festival, even in ages and places where Jews did not or could not engage in agricultural pursuits, and even in the southern hemisphere where the seasons were upside down.
Harvest symbols were in the form of the Arba’ah Minim or Four Species of plants – 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 symbolise the encompassing bounty of the Creator.
Over and above Space, Time and Deity, the festival has a fourth element – Ethics.
The moralists derived a series of lessons from the Four Species. As all need to be taken together, so a community needs the contribution of all its members; as some plants have fragrance, others have taste, and some have both, so there are human beings who give society their gifts of mind, some who give gifts of heart and some who give both.