Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Sukkot marks a moment of seasonal transition. Nothing says “fall” in my neck of the woods more than having no rain all month until Sukkot, at which time it suddenly begins to pour, as is expected for the remainder of this week. The Jewish calendar sensitizes us to the eternal rhythms of nature.
Sukkot also said to mark a historical transition as the Israelites wandered in that no-man’s land between victim and victor on that forty-year trek to the land of promise. Many feel this historical overlay was added when Israelite culture became less agriculturally based. Perhaps it was out of fear of bacchanalian revelry and other pagan influences. In any event, Judaism has always maintained the tension between linear and cyclical views of history and Sukkot manages to balance both.
But as I stared at this week’s spectacular and rare “super-moon” eclipse, and learned of the discovery of water on Mars, it occurred to me that we are viewing Sukkot from a much too narrow historical perspective. Through the twigs of the sukkah roof we can see as far as the eye can see, to infinity and beyond, and looking down at the carpet of trodden earth at my feet, as far back as our scientific mind’s eye can reconstruct.
The sukkah is supposed to inspire in us a sense of smallness in the face of nature’s grandeur. Looking up at last Sunday night’s spectacle of cosmic precision and beauty certainly did the trick. I suppose spectacular eclipses should inspire no less awe than that leaf on the tree over there, shifting from green to yellow to fiery red, or that squirrel scampering with an October-like urgency. But it does. The moon and sun have looked down on our earthly symphony of seasonal transition for billions of years, even as they are ever evolving themselves. The eclipse reminded me that everything around me is in transition. Everything plays it’s note in this remarkable chorus, everything and everyone.
I have a young congregant, Chase Brownstein, who is a budding (and brilliant) paleontologist at the local nature center. We were discussing Sukkot and he reminded me that not all transitions in nature are cyclical. Yes, leaves fall and then the trees re-bud, but they are still ever evolving. Each new season brings a new ring around the bark of the tree and a lighter shade of gray to my day-old stubble.
So rather than focusing on the four-decade march of a single people from slavery to freedom, Sukkot can also point to far more dramatic transitions, some of them being traced over many millions of years.
Just down the road from me, mammoth bones have been discovered on Cove Island, on Long Island Sound. Connecticut, in fact, is a paleontological paradise. Dinosaur footprints, bones and teeth have been discovered throughout the Connecticut Valley. My backyard, right where my Sukkah now stands, might have been part of the original Jurassic Park.
While many of us look up at the moon, paleontologists usually look down at the mulch, the rocks and the riverbed. Either way, we are looking out from within our simple agrarian hut at a world to which we inextricably connected.
The dinosaurs roamed these parts 195 million years ago, literally fueling our own existence. We drive both on and powered by their pulverized remains. They are every bit as much a part of our lives as the ancient Israelites and their Near Eastern antecedents who first hallowed our harvest huts. The Herodian blocks of the Temple could well have been originally quarried by some real life Fred Flintstone, passed down from era to era, from a prehistoric then to now. The transitions we celebrate are not simply seasonal and cyclical, they are evolutionary and epochal, from Jurassic to Jerusalem to us.
It’s all so wondrous; it makes me feel pity for those who force themselves to believe that this spectacular evolutionary journey was somehow divinely compressed into six days.
So Sukkot isn’t just about the transitions of an enslaved people to freedom, once upon a time. It’s about the transitions of all people and all things, at all times, of dry bones yielding living sinew, layer upon layer.
And each layer of life, each remarkable creature in God’s vast menagerie, each wandering resident of this earth, has built a home and ultimately seen that home dissolve into the dust, only to see another rise in its place. As the psalmist proclaims, typically it is the stone that the builders cast aside that becomes the cornerstone of the next generation’s – or the next species’ – abode.
Sukkot affirms our connection to all creatures that have wandered this earth, some of them quite old and extremely enormous.
And, as my paleontologist friend reminds me, each has left an indelible footprint.