With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

MISPLACED with ourselves and God at Sukkot

30 September 2023
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Sukkot 5784

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

Having concluded the Days of Awe, we begin to turn our attention to Sukkot. In the UK, it inevitably coincides with the green clothing of the trees turning brown, orange, red or yellow, before the breeze nudges them and they fall. In Jewish tradition, we turn to the megillah, the special Biblical reading for Sukkot, Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).

Kohelet struggles with purpose in life if, ‘Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, Vanity of vanities,” What do we gain by all the toil at which we toil under the sun?

For what do we live? What is our purpose? Asks Kohelet.

My Colleague and Friend, Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry, who I dearly hope will come and lead us again in her thought, writes in her self-published book, ‘MISPLACED,’

“We are haunted by the sense of having missed out – of having missed something, and so we are situated somewhere in between the life we have and the life we thought we would have, and as a consequence we end up in various states of protracted mourning for what might have been (but never was).”

As we sit in our physical or metaphoric Sukkah:

some are struck by the fragility of existence that weighs heavy, like the apple pulling down on its string, the only thing preventing its fall from the schach (the material of the Sukkah roof) to the ground.

some are refreshed by the annual moment, that surprises us every time, the opportunity of beginning again as if reborn. Positivity and optimism of our natural demeanour, permits a sanguine approach to all that can be accomplished.

some shrug and wonder what all the fuss is about, untroubled by thought and just get on with living.

some are a complex of all the above colliding, chaotically in the muddle of our minds.

Rabbi Judith continues:

“Maybe this yearning is a nagging sense for the need for some kind completion, completeness. And yet when we arrive (at an end point) it feels as though we are just beginning, or that we had never actually arrived – a forever chase, an asymptote (a ‘destination’ that you get closer and closer to but never quite reach).”

Judith concludes in a way that allows space for all our natural demeanour, by stating:

“We seem always to be failing.”

But then cites Paul Celan’s poem, ‘You.’

To Cling
To unstable things:

Two fingers are snapping
In the abyss, a
World is stirring
In the scratch-sheets, it all depends
On you.

If failing means we do not complete the task, I know I will have a tinge of melancholy yet also confidence and hope that our next generation may take a further step along, the continuum, and quite possibly do a better job of it, or the best that they can do in their circumstances.

Reflecting on Rabbi Judith’s thought after our Parashat Hashavuah weekly Torah study session, when I presented Judith’s thought, a participant suggested that, “It brings to my mind TS Eliot’s ‘East Coker’ in ‘The Four Quartets,’ and particularly this of his from ‘Little Gidding.’

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

—T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (Gardners Books; Main edition, April 30, 2001) Originally published 1943.

Perhaps our path through life reflects our walk through life with God. For decades, science has dominated discourse. We boldly assert knowingness. More uncertain times leads to speculation, a pining for something more concrete to reassure worried hearts, minds and souls … There is something greater, beyond meaning and purpose. Yet if finding God were the end … I prefer to carry on searching, exploring with the confidence of intuiting being held.

At Sukkot, Kohelet bemoans, or just states the fact that, “a generation comes and a generation goes.” This morning we have been gifted with witnessing our legacy, future generations that will continue the cycle of generations in The Ark Synagogue, of Judaism and humanity – of life even after our death.

As the leaves turn and fall, as moments of life end, we are left with the promise, the knowledge that the winter does not last forever, that we will return to life “and so draw closer to the Source of life, in which every life finds meaning, purpose and hope.”