Celebration of Sukkot

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – October 4, 2009

Try to imagine yourself as a Jew at the time of Moses. You grew up a slave in Egypt, you worked for Egyptians day and night, cooking their food, cleaning their villas. And then one day, there is a messenger from the Jewish underground, you are told that you are going to escape, to prepare to leave this night. With your small bundles of clothing, you and your family sneak out of the villa at night and find all the Jews streaming quietly down to the river.

This man Moses holds a torch and leads your family and all the Jews out of Egypt at night hiding in a foggy mist. You somehow cross the Red Sea, the cattails trampled down with many feet, the sea water seemingly dried up. How that all happens is not clear to anyone. It all seems a dream – scary yet exciting.

All the people around you are whispering in fear and in excitement- how can this be? How can you be finally escaping slavery? And who is this man, this Moses who is strong and courageous, who is he to tell all the people to just leave their posts and follow him. And later while you hear that the Egyptians came after the tribe, somehow they weren’t able to cross the sea and couldn’t follow the escaping Jews.

So, then you are all camping out in this desert area. Everyone is huddled together, glad to be safe and to be free. But after a few days of this camping out, there’s no food and little water. And while all the people are still excited to be free, there’s some murmuring going on. Some whispering and complaining about how are you all going to eat?

People still want to follow Moses but they’re feeling a little scared because they don’t know how this is all going to work. One morning Moses took everyone further out in the desert and showed them this funny dried substance that you can find at dawn crusting over the sand, and you can eat it!

Everyone didn’t like it at first, but it was okay, it filled your belly. Then Moses would use his staff and strike a rock and somehow they would find water there trickling down. Moses would raise his staff and set out again in some direction but the people weren’t sure where they were going. It didn’t seem to get any better day after day.

But after many weeks of this, the murmuring got louder and louder. The small groups of people sitting around the campfires at night complained more and more. So Moses would come around and remind the people that this God, this Yahweh, who loved the Jewish people above all others, and who really was the leader of the tribe out of slavery- not Moses- but Yahweh- that He kept providing for you, no matter what, that He would care for the tribe.

Moses exclaimed excitedly, that in fact, it was a miracle that God kept on taking care of the people even though the people were so unappreciative and just kept on complaining.

After many months of this endless travelling and having so little to eat, so little to feed the babies that were still being born on this journey, Moses finally gave the tribe a little rest and told them to build little huts at the foot of a mountain where Moses said he would visit with God.

Moses was gone a long time and people were getting restless and wondering if he would come back. Aaron, Moses’ brother was helping calm the people, but they were getting very uncomfortable about just sitting around and not doing anything. Finally, a group from the tribe decided that they really should be worshipping. The way that they had been taught in Egypt was to build a statue of some kind of God.

So they decided to do that, even thought Aaron warned them that is wasn’t a good idea. But they went ahead and created a statue that looked like a golden calf. Then they danced around and built fires around the statue calling the statue God and praising it.

A few days into this crazy celebration, Moses comes down the mountain and sees them dancing around this likeness of an animal. His face turns dark and angry and the tablets of stone that he is holding fall from his grasp and are smashed to bits at his feet. He doesn’t seem to notice, he just raises his staff and starts shouting at the people, something about how ungrateful they are to build a false idol instead of worshipping the God Yahweh that Moses had told them had saved them from slavery.

He was so angry that he stomped back up the mountain. They didn’t see him again for many days. Needless to say, the people who had built the statue quickly smashed it and skulked around for a while. The mood around the campfire was tense.

Finally, Moses appears again carrying more tablets. He seems calm this time. And he starts telling the people about a “covenant” that they must make with Yahweh. A covenant in which they should follow the commandments that God has dictated to Moses and Moses has written on the tablets, and in return Yahweh will care for them and for generations to come of the Jewish people.

The story that describes all of this comes from the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. It goes on to say that the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years. By that time, there was a whole new generation of Jews who were born in the desert who had not experienced slavery and who were perhaps ready in God’s estimation to take on their next task of conquering the Caananites when the Jews reached the land that God had promised.

Jews celebrate the time that their ancestors wandered in the desert, living in small huts and finding some kind of subsistence out of the desert life. This Jewish celebration of Sukkot is celebrated today. On this holiday, Jews remember how God provided for them over the long period in the desert, never forgetting them and bringing them to the promised land of Israel. Some historians point to this celebration of thankfulness as the biblical foundation for our Thanksgiving holiday.

Sukkot is a harvest celebration, probably stemming from ancient pagan fall festivals. It’s sometimes called the Feast of Booths or the Feast of the Tabernacle. The small hut that you visited outside is called a “sukkah” and Jews are commanded in the Bible to build a “sukkah” on Sukkot and to have meals in it for seven days.

Much of the literature describing this holiday, say that this is a time to give thanks for the abundance in our lives and remember the times when things weren’t so good. In remembering the difficult times, we are inspired to find gratitude for even the small things that make life good. The meals that we share with our family, the work we do, the roofs over our heads.

Gratitude, I believe is a spiritual practice. And those days when I find myself feeling such deep gratitude for everything and everyone around me, feel like holy days. When I breathe in gratitude, I can barely have room for hard feelings for anyone, for complaining about anything.

The feeling of gratitude wakes us up to the sacredness of the everydayness of life. We feel grateful for the simple things. Our hearts are open when we feel gratitude. We remember to notice that the sun is shining, that we are healthy, that we really enjoy the smell of coffee, the wonderful comfort in coming home to a safe warm house. When are hearts are closed, we don’t notice these small things or the big things either.

I can remember a time when I was on vacation and I woke up early and came out to look at the beautiful scenery of a lake view. But it wasn’t the wonderful view that inspired me. It was a small bird who had come to sit near my park bench. He was picking at the grass in his persistent way. And when he looked my way, my heart just opened with gratitude for the way life offers us such beauty.

The Jewish tradition emphasizes this spiritual gratitude. The prayers of Brachot are blessings that are repeated throughout the day giving thanks to God for every thing in your life that doesn’t need healing. Many spiritual traditions have gratitude prayers. Muslims prayer five times a day with gratitude as one important theme. And Hindus have elaborate altars with gifts to the gods as thankfulness for the blessings that have been given.

Okay, that’s all well and good- but what about when life has disappointed us and we don’t feel very grateful at the moment? I mean it’s not easy to be grateful for a time when you’ve lost a job and can’t find another one, or your retirement funds have tanked and you were counting on them for your retirement soon, or you just found out that your sister has cancer.

We all have times when we really feel that the Universe has sent us some karmic message about something because we sure aren’t feeling loved and cared for by anyone let alone the Universe. Sometimes life just sucks, doesn’t it? There’s no other way to put it, really.

Sometimes we have to invent our gratitude. Psychotherapists often recommend to people who are going through difficult times, the repeating of affirmations that name the things that we can be grateful for despite the bad time. Repeating such a litany can stir the buried memories of feelings of joy and gratitude that still exist in our bodies and minds, but are dormant. The repeating the affirmation about what we are grateful for can bring up those feelings.

I have to admit something that I do when I’m driving in the car. I hate to admit this, but when I’m having a bad day, or a difficult moment, there’s something that comes to me like one of these affirmations. Out of the blue, I’ll start singing Happy Birthday! Really, I just sing Happy Birthday to myself and when I do, I start to feel better. I guess I have buried in me lots of happy memories of birthdays and that song brings up these encoded memories through the singing of this silly song.

I am continually surprised by the resilience of people. Sometimes when people are going through the most difficult times in their lives, that is when they find the courage, the strength within them to somehow see how the incredible pain they feel has also deepened their lives. Somehow the pain has sculpted out a place within them where they have more room for joy and gratitude.

They find themselves more able to reach out to others- sometimes asking for help, sometimes offering help to others. The way that Kahil Gibran describes sorrow is this: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

I have seen many people describe their grief or their feeling of pain with a commensurate feeling of gratitude. Gratitude because they somehow realize that they would never feel the same about life again. I remember being with a young 18 year old girl whose mother had been going through cancer treatments for six months and whose prognosis was not good. I was sitting with her at the hospital.

We were just sitting and not saying anything for a while after we had talked all about how hard this time was for her and her family. Then she turned to me and she said, “But you know, you can’t go backwards. As much as I wish my mother were well, I also know that I will never take life for granted again. I will never take my mother for granted. I truly feel that this difficulty is a gift.” She realized this at age 18. A wisdom that she shouldn’t have had to come to at this age. But she found the strength within to live with it and even felt gratitude at having this experience.

Victor Frankl, a doctor who because he was a Jew was taken to Auschwitz with his father during the war. He writes of the brutal experience of living with the inhumane treatment of the Jews in that death camp.

What he learned was the ability of humans to withstand even the most brutal experiences, the ability to decide that someone else cannot rob you of your own humanity. He says, “Everything can be taken from a man but the last of freedoms, the right to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” He reminds us that it is our attitude to our situation that ultimately gives us the kind of life we lead, not the circumstances themselves.

I have been accused of being a Pollyanna and I certainly try hard to not suggest that the horrible tragedies that people face are good because we learn from them. I was reminded by my daughter some weeks after her father’s death that there was nothing good to come from this as I was being a little too positive about our situation.

But now I see how my daughter has turned the tragedy she experienced into an understanding of other people’s sorrows. I see her being the one to reach out to her friends as they experience tragedy, being the one to hold other people’s hands when they have pain. She has become a wonderful loving and giving human being and someone who experiences life as joy. She gives joy to others is so many ways. I feel she has turned her sorrow into joyful gratitude.

When Moses and the Jews finally reached Moab, and God tells Moses that they are nearing the Promised Land, Moses then disobeys God and is told that his time to lead is over, that he will not be going with the tribe into the Promised Land. He climbs a mountain and as he looks over the land, he looks forward to the future that his people will have on this land that God has promised them. Moses feels such gratitude for the life that Yahweh has promised the future generations of Jews that he dies happy.

Each unopened moment that we are given contains the potential for joy and the potential for sorrow. Often it’s up to us to find the gratitude locked within those moments.