The original Succot celebration

By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF

Succot, like perfect sweet and sour cabbage soup, has two flavors. A single holiday with two themes.  We celebrate the bounty of the grape and olive harvest in the Promised Land; also we commemorate 40 hungry years of wanderings in that huge sand pile – the Sinai Peninsula – a garden that can only grow rocks.

The Chumash commands us to relive our wilderness days. “Ye shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths” when he took us out of Egypt. This holiday is one of the three special ones when the Israelite male was required to show up at the Temple.

A booth, a succah, must have been a challenge on those chilly Sinai nights.  It’s cold as only a desert can be bone-cold at night. So you can bet most adults were drawn to the social warmth of the campfire. Conversation, maybe a little music from a homemade flute, and somebody might be passing around a skin of fermented goat’s milk.

Some sages say that the Jewish love for books and literature was born on those long Sinai nights. You see, Moses and Aaron and their Levite kinfolk had plenty of time to sit around and talk since there was yet no temple to attend to. Moses, himself, didn’t have the leisure of his brother Levites since he was busy as a Goshen scribe putting down all that he heard on the mountaintop. You remember he spent 40 days and nights listening to the Master Magistrate lay down the law.

And sitting around the fire, Moses passed on the message from the mountaintop. Those five books were full of tales of love and adventure. But full of rules, too, which occasionally brought on heavy eyelids and deep breathing to the nighttime audience huddled close around the fire. “Ten is enough,” they groaned. “613? We can’t even remember them. Let’s go back to Genesis. Tell us some more about that garden.” The men especially loved the story of Eve and the snake.

(Mark Twain, a spiritual skeptic who had a remarkable short attention span and therefore never went to synagogue on Yom Kippur, remarked that nobody heard a word a preacher said after the first ten minutes. He would have hated my synagogue.)

So, the first and greatest prophet of Israel, blessed with divine understanding of human inattention and the human temptation to doze off when anyone lectured for over ten minutes, knew he had to vary his curriculum. So, he told stories, the best of which found their way into the oral tradition.        

Moses was careful to only repeat the best, the most fabulous tales. He knew he had a tough audience.   Often he told the story of Malcha, who invited the handsome, but weary traveler into her succah and quenched his thirst and put a platter of lamb chops in front of him. Too late did the innocent victim find that her succah was a chupah. The men hated this story. But you can bet that once in a while, when Moshe told the same story for the fifth time, some creative Israelite got up and told one of his own inventions. It was like the Improv where freshmen storytellers tried their skills.

But the mystics tell us that on those star-glittered nights when Moshe cut back on the adventure tales and went back to his revelation of the Word of G-d to Israel, the desert creatures beyond the light of the campfire, quietly listened. No night birds sang and even the desert fox refrained from calling his mate.

Time, as still as Horeb itself, ceased to exist so that the prophet could look both before and after. Did he not tell of history that was, and would be? Some say the scroll of time stood before him like a giant Torah as he recited to the people the oral tradition. Moses and the people talked. Many, many words – outnumbering the stars – filled the night. They talked ‘til the moon grew pale and weary. And I think that’s why the ancestors of these wanderers predominate in today’s world of words.

Historians, sociologists, anthropologists still today, wonder about this mystery of Judaism. I mean, how could it be that we’re about .025 percent of the world’s population, but we write about 20% of the books. (Check the best seller lists.) Why do we win all the Pulitzer Prizes? Why do we predominate in the world of entertainment, movies, and television? Jewish themes, Jewish scriptwriters, Jewish producers, Jewish actors,

What is it about words and their sequencing into literary art – like jewels on a bracelet – that attracts the former Children of Israel – now known as Jews?

It’s almost like the old-fashioned anti-semites used to say. Wherever you look, you see the Jew. Well, in the world of ideas its as true as the wisdom in Proverbs. Where stories are told, you’ll find Jews. But why?

I say it was those wild Sinai nights around the campfire when Moses told his tales. When the audience trooped back to their succahs, their wilderness huts, they had plenty to think about. Oh the dreaming that went on in those succahs.  And it still goes on and on.

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