The Pagan Instinct - Shabbat Hol haMoed Sukkot 5778





Today is the first day of Hol haMo’ed Sukkot, of the intermediate days of Sukkot. And though it is called ‘the time of our rejoicing’, I have to admit to you today that I have always found Sukkot one of the most challenging holidays in our calendar. I find Sukkot so challenging precisely because it is ‘the time of our rejoicing’, and it comes a scant few days after Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is the most solemn and humbling day of our calendar. Yom Kippur demands that we confront mortality, that we let go of our pride, and that we engage seriously with our wrongdoings. And then comes joyful and beautiful Sukkot, with almost no room to breathe between the two. In truth, I am never quite ready to be joyful at the beginning of Sukkot. I am still in the headspace of Yom Kippur, feeling off-kilter and overwhelmed by the intensity of celebration on Sukkot.

Sukkot is also a highly physical holiday. Like most other holidays, we eat and drink and rejoice. And unlike any other holiday, we do so outside of our homes – in sukkot, temporary booths, closer to nature than we usually take our meals. Also unlike any other holiday, we go to prayer holding items found in the natural world. This is in contrast with Yom Kippur, which ignores the physical in order to focus on the relationship between the soul and God. Sukkot, on the other hand, is the holiday of the body. This week, we are celebrating the relationship between the body and God. And in doing that, we take specific parts of specific plants – a palm leaf, willow branches, myrtle branches, and an etrog – and we hold them together and we shake them during prayer. We won’t be doing that today, because it’s Shabbat, but we’ve been shaking the lulav and the etrog for the last few days and we’ll pick them up again tomorrow.

Sukkot is… a little strange, really. It’s probably not the holiday you choose to invite your non-Jewish friend to synagogue, because you don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to explain the sukkah and the lulav and the etrog to them. You’ve probably even heard people talk about the shaking of the lulav and etrog and say, ‘Well, it seems a little pagan, doesn’t it?’ Perhaps you’ve even said something along those lines yourself.

There are some traditional explanations around the lulav and etrog which try very hard to convince you that there’s nothing pagan about this. The most common explanation, which is from the Kabbalistic tradition, is that the lulav and etrog represent the four types of Jews. The myrtle has a good smell, but is inedible – this represents Jews who have good deeds, but no Torah. The lulav, the date palm, is edible, but has no smell – this represents Jews who have Torah, but no good deeds. The willow, having neither taste nor smell, represents Jews who have neither Torah nor good deeds. And the etrog, having both, represents Jews who have both. By bringing them all together, we represent the unity of the Jewish people. It’s a beautiful explanation, and it isn’t the only one. However, even when I read the most inspiring interpretations of the lulav and etrog, they all seem to me to be after-the-fact explanations. That is, we already shake the lulav and etrog, and now we are looking for a way to explain why we do it.

I’ll come back to that. For the moment, I want to tell you a little about my upbringing. I was raised by ardent atheists. ‘God’ was not a kosher word in my childhood home. Becoming religious as a teenager might have had a slight hint of rebellion about it. And one way in which my parents’ atheism stuck with me for years after becoming religious was that, for a long time, I saw atheism as the natural human default. That is, belief in God is a positive claim, and requires effort to maintain, because the natural default of the human mind must be to believe in nothing divine. And several years ago, on Sukkot, I had something of an epiphany: atheism is not the natural human default, I realised. Paganism is!

Now, I want to be really explicit about how I’m using the term ‘paganism’, because ‘paganism’ is a very ill-defined term. When I say ‘paganism’, I mean the worship of nature itself. I mean that looking at the story of humanity, religiosity seems to have begun with this nature-worship. When seeing a fruit-bearing tree and feeling gratitude, the human default was to thank the tree. This is what I’m calling paganism. Sometimes – usually, actually – this develops into polytheism. First, the gods just represent the course of nature. Often, the ‘gods’ of very ancient religions don’t seem to be much more than descriptions of the natural world. Stories of gods were explanations of why winter broke into spring, and why spring became summer. You can see the remnants of this in some of the Greek myths – for example, the story of Persephone explains why there is winter, and Helios describes the trajectory of the sun across the sky. It is all the more obvious when looking at very ancient god-myths, in which the stories of the gods would reset every year to describe the passing of the seasons. This then evolved into multiple gods having power over war, and so on.

To attribute divinity to the natural world seems to be a natural urge of the human mind. With that in mind, atheism and theism are both revolutionary. Atheism is the revolution that says ‘why thank the tree? The tree is not consciously giving you fruit.’ Theism is the revolution that says to look beyond the tree. Theism says ‘don’t just thank the tree, thank the creator of the tree; thanking the tree is like thanking the hand that feeds you, not the person who stretches out the hand’. Monotheism says that behind everything there is one force, one God, and that is where our urge of gratitude should be directed.

This is why I don’t feel any anxiety when people say that Sukkot feels kind of weird and pagan to them. I think that Sukkot is weird and pagan, and that’s a good thing. Sukkot is about harnessing the pagan urge. Because the urge towards nature-worship is not a terrible thing, it’s just misdirected. Instead of ignoring the urge to thank the tree, on Sukkot we embrace that urge, and we point it towards God. We take our sticks and our fruit, and we accept those urges towards nature, and we use those urges to worship the God who is behind nature. We sit outside and we experience the natural world, and we say ‘Barukh Ata Ad-nai’.

Because Yom Kippur is the holiday that most seriously ignores that urge. Yom Kippur encourages us to ignore the physical as much as physical creatures possibly can. We don’t eat or drink, we don’t bathe or anoint our bodies, we just focus on the soul. And that is why Sukkot has to happen with almost no transition period. Because we have spent too long ignoring the physical, and the physical is a part of our religious life. The urge towards the physical threatens to break through in this post-Yom Kippur period. And instead of letting it sweep us up into paganism, our tradition has the wisdom to provide us with an outlet for those urges. We take that urge towards the physical, towards nature – the pagan instinct, as I’m calling it – and we turn it where it belongs: towards God.

So I want to encourage us to embrace that part of ourselves that might look at our Sukkot celebrations and think, ‘Well, it just seems a little pagan.’ It does seem a little pagan. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. May we all be able to embrace and harness the pagan instinct, and turn it towards the God of our ancestors, the God of the universe, in this season of our rejoicing.


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