Two weeks ago I was invited by the rabbi of my local synagogue to share in the last day of Succoth. Succoth is one of the three great pilgrimage festivals which all Jewish males are required to observe. The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, as it is called in English, recalls the years the Jews spent in the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. In remembrance of this, Jews build booths – leafy bowers – in their back gardens and synagogues, and (in theory) live outside in them for a week, though in practice this is invariably commuted to the eating their meals outside.
The booths are flimsy structures, open on one side like a tent, and the rule is that you must be able to see the sky through the leaves. In my part of north London where there are as many synagogues as churches, you can’t miss the succoth – nor the partying. Because although the festival commemorates a time of hardship, it is also a time of rejoicing. The booths symbolise trust in God’s protection.
As you would expect from a synagogue in St John’s Wood, their succa was in exceptionally good taste, beautifully decorated with garlands of flowers and fruits. We stood around drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. It was all terribly English, though ham sandwiches were notable by their absence.
The Jews perform this ritual for two reasons. First, to remind themselves of their vulnerability. None of us should ever take our life, our health, or the basic necessities of life such as food and clean water for granted. Secondly, to honour the providence of God who may not give us all we want in life, but will always give us all that we genuinely need.
From the gospels we know that Jesus often used the Festival of Succoth to deliver his teaching. With Jerusalem packed with pilgrims, he had a captive audience. So when we hear St John saying that ‘it was the last and great day of the feast,’ this is what he is referring to. Succoth is also the backcloth to tonight’s lesson from the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah, supported by Ezra the priest, was the leader of the group of Jews who returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem. You will remember that first the northern kingdom of Israel, and then the southern kingdom of Judah had been invaded and overthrown. The royal family had been executed; the city walls of Jerusalem and its temple destroyed; and thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon. After some 70 years, a group of exiles return and begin the task of reconstruction.
Babylon is located just outside Baghdad. In other words the Jews were in exile in what we now call Iraq. Today in one of the paradoxes of history, there are thousands of Iraqi exiles dispersed across the globe, and a task of reconstruction is facing them. But that is a subject for a different sermon.
From Nehemiah we learn that in spite of intimidation from marauding tribesmen the exiles work hard, day and night, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. Autumn arrives and with it the Festival of Succoth, and Nehemiah calls upon the people to celebrate. God has worked a miracle as great as when he led the Israelites out of Egypt by the hand of Moses. He has brought another generation of lost Jews to their promised land. He says:
“This day is holy to the Lord your God: do not mourn or weep. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
If you saw the film The History Boys, or even better the play, you may recall the scene when the boys complain to Hector, their eccentric teacher, about having to learn poetry by heart. “But I don’t understand it, sir” moans one of the boys. “None of this has happened to us.” “But it will,” replies Hector, “it will. And then you will understand.”
You could make a similar claim for the psalms. Sunday by Sunday we sing the psalms in praise of the God who journeys with us throughout our lives, as he once journeyed with the Jews in the wilderness. And as we sing them, we are laying down inside ourselves a spiritual reservoir. The psalms cover the whole gamut of life, from birth to death. Marriage, childbirth, success, failure, smugness, desolation: it’s all there, including laments over the suffering of the innocent, famine, and injustice.
Not all the experiences may have come your way as yet, and perhaps some never will. I certainly hope none of us here ever have to beg for our bread. But sad and bad things do happen to good people, and how we cope with these experiences is a test of our maturity and stability. The psalms offer us a vocabulary with which to pray to God when words fail us. They did the same for Jesus.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The words Jesus cried as he hung upon the cross are from Psalm 22. As he dies, he cries out, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Again, he is quoting from the psalms.
So I want to say two things tonight.
First, reflecting on Nehemiah and the Feast of Succoth: we should never forget to say thank you to God for our life, our food, our health, for the little things of life as well as the great. We should never take any of them for granted. People who don’t say thank you are not very attractive. We don’t like it when someone doesn’t bother to thank us for something we’ve done, so we shouldn’t treat God like that either. We are all vulnerable people. Life is a gift, not a possession. And if we spend our emotional energy bemoaning our fate or being jealous of other people’s supposed good fortune, all that will happen is that we will end up embittered.
Secondly, we need to let the words of the psalms travel from our mind into our heart. That means giving time and energy to cultivating a spiritual reservoir so that when the lean times come, as surely they will, we can cope and are not overwhelmed.
I said I had two things to say, but perhaps I will add a third. ‘Let the joy of the Lord be your strength,’ says Nehemiah. St Paul lists joy as one of the fruits of the Spirit, and Jesus tells us that no one can rob us of it. As a society we are preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness, but overlook the gift of joy. You can rejoice even in times of difficulty and hardship, and it makes us strong. This is that truth which lies at the heart of Succoth.
I leave you with an old monastic prayer to ponder. ‘God give me grace to persevere with joy’. And to that prayer, may we all say, ‘Amen’.
Rev’d Robert Atwell, Vicar of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill
21st October 2007