Rabbi Janet Burden – 24 September 2018
Rabbi Janet Burden gave this sermon at Sukkot 2007, shortly after her surgery for breast cancer. After more than 10 cancer-free years, she says she still has a lot to be thankful for, including the lessons she has learned in the intervening years.
In the days when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, Sukkot was simply called HeChag, THE festival. Although there are three biblically mandated pilgrim festivals, this was the one that the greatest number of our ancestors actually observed. Some would say that this is because it was the most joyful. That may well be true. The festivities of the season were legendary, with spectacles like the great water libation ceremony, when the priests would ceremoniously prove their absolute faith that God would once more bring rain to the land by pouring out some of the last of their precious stored water. Crowds thronged the magnificent Temple courtyard both day and night. Can you imagine what it looked like by day, with everyone waving their palm, myrtle and brook willow branches during the singing of psalms? In the darkness all was illuminated by the great torches of fire. It must have been quite a sight. But compelling as these ceremonies undoubtedly were, there was a practical reason for the festival’s popularity as well. Both Pesach and Shavuot occur during busy parts of the agricultural cycle, when both livestock and crops are in need of attention. By contrast, Sukkot falls at a time when all the major harvests are complete and there is still time before the new sowing begins. Thus, in the autumn, even the busiest of farmers could leave their landholdings behind and make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Like our forebears, I always make a pilgrimage at this time of year – but not to Jerusalem. Mine is not a journey of any great physical distance, but it often feels like I am travelling to another world. Yes, I am talking about visiting that exotic destination, Golders’ Green. Even if I do my Pesach shopping at the local Waitrose (or, if I am feeling extravagant, at Selfridges), at Sukkot, it is absolutely essential for me to visit that world of peyot, black hats and black coats that is frummest London. This year was no exception.
Naturally, I made the obligatory stop at Carmelli’s bakery for a bite of rugeleh to fortify myself before walking up to the hall of the shul just opposite, behind the Orthodox Church. For the days before Sukkot, this place becomes the Arba Minim Centre (Arba Minim being one of the traditional names for the lulav and etrog sets that one uses to mark the festival). I always go to this place as the people who run it, although strictly Orthodox themselves, always treat me with politeness and respect. This year, a young man in the obligatory black velvet kippah even offered me a book to help me to select an etrog that would be mehadrin, that is, something that would truly beautify the mitzvah. I dutifully flipped through it before proceeding to the tables on which the etrogim were displayed.
I hope that none of you will be terribly disappointed that I didn’t choose our shul’s etrog, or my own, by the criteria prescribed by the compilers of the Artscroll series of religious texts. For the shul, I chose one that I found aesthetically pleasing – symmetrical with a good yellow colour shading into pale green near the pitom, that all important bit that recalls the earlier stage of the fruit’s development from a budding flower. The pitom is meant to remind us that all seasons are necessary to prepare the fruit for us to enjoy. I hope that you all approve of my acquisition on our collective behalf.
For my personal use, I permitted myself a slightly quirkier choice. Among the fruits of various sizes, shapes and shades, I found one that was smallish in size and frankly a bit lopsided at the top. I’ve been feeling a bit lopsided myself lately, having had a great deal of fuss made over my left side since the discovery of a small tumour there in August. Following surgery and various other tests and treatments, it’s a small wonder that I am feeling a bit, well – wonky. So the little lopsided etrog made me smile. I quickly took it to the cash desk to claim it as my own. Velvet kippah looked bemused, but was silent. I shrugged and said, “What can I do? It spoke to me.” He rose to the challenge of this apparent ignoramus in front of him. “The important thing is that it’s kosher,” he said. “Absolutely,” I replied. I figured that if he was going to meet me half way, the least I could do was be similarly generous… We were on his home ground after all. And to be fair, it is due to his desire, and that of others like him, to observe the festival scrupulously that London’s Jews are able to acquire these ritual products at all.
Yet on Thursday morning, when I opened the etrog’s special box to perform the waving ritual, I had an unfortunate surprise. Somehow, though it had been carefully padded for transport, the pitom had broken off. My little lopsided fruit was no longer properly kosher. My immediate reaction was simple dismay. “Oh, noooo,” I said involuntarily, though there was no one else in the room. I had made such an effort to fulfil this mitzvah. I had gone to the best suppliers I knew, selected my etrog thoughtfully and transported it carefully. How could it be that all my good intentions had proven for nought? It wasn’t fair; it wasn’t fair. I am ashamed to admit that my second impulse was to find someone to blame. “Did you take the etrog out of its box?” I demanded from my mild-mannered Jon as he walked into the kitchen, pulling on his jacket. “No, why?” he replied. “The pitom has broken off,” I explained, adding, “It wasn’t like that when I bought it.” I eyed him suspiciously. He looked at me with a slight frown. “Is this a helpful exercise?” he asked.
I don’t know whether it was his words or his face that made me realise how foolish I was being. I hung my head. “Guess things just aren’t going to be perfect this year, are they?”
“No – no they’re not,” he replied, “But if we keep perspective, they’ll be good enough.” He gave me a hug, then turned and headed out the door for work. I remained in the kitchen, looking out at our little sukkah, holding the etrog box in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. I stayed that way for a long time. Then I put down my tea, put the willows and the myrtle branches in their places next to the lulav and went out to perform the waving ritual. I held the broken pitom together with the little lopsided etrog and carried on as if everything was just as it should be.
My friend and teacher, Rabbi Erlene Wahlhaus Dukhovney, who was also a trained psychotherapist, once remarked that all individuals struggle with the same issues their whole lives. This fact didn’t make her despondent, however. She claimed that with the passing years, and hopefully with increased wisdom, we could learn to recognise our foibles more quickly when they surfaced and to negotiate them with greater skill and grace. As with so many things Erlene taught me, I am only now beginning to understand what she meant. This year, I have had to re-learn some very basic lessons – things which I have really ‘known’ all along, to wit:
- 1) No matter how much I would like to, I can’t control everything that happens.
2) Not everything that is broken can be fixed.
3) Attempting to lay blame isn’t constructive.
4) And most importantly – sometimes the only thing we can do is to make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Re-learning these through the accident to my little lopsided etrog doesn’t seem like too bad a way to start out my new year. I hope that any lessons that you must re-learn will come to you in similarly gentle ways. May this be God’s will – Amein.
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