About the Author

Rev Aaron Eime is the deacon of Christ Church in the Old City of Jerusalem, the first Protestant Church in the Middle East. Aaron studied at the Hebrew University in the Masters Program with the focus towards Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation of Bible. Aaron also studied Psychology and Sociology at Queensland University in Australia in the Social Work Program. He is a dedicated Bible teacher exploring the Hebraic Roots of the Christian Faith. He has taught Internationally in many countries including Europe, North America, Hong Kong and China. Aaron is the Director of Research and Education at Christ Church. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and 3 children.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Vanity in a Sukkah?

The holidays are coming thick and fast in Jerusalem these days. Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, the first and eighth day of Sukkot as well as the regular weekly Sabbaths have made it feel like every second day is a Sabbath. We are currently in the 3rd of the Great Pilgrimage Festivals, the Feast of Tabernacles. Jews and Christians from the nations have gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate with joy the last of the Appointed times of the Lord. Sukkah’s have appeared all over the city in a myriad of colours, sizes and materials. There are many traditions and interpretations to the meaning of the command ‘Dwell in Booths for seven days’ (Lev 23vs42). Sephardi Jews traditionally eat and sleep in the Sukkah, as they tended to hail from warmer Middle Eastern countries, and Ashkenazis traditionally only take their meals in the Sukkah, as they tended to hail from the colder European countries. 

What is written in the text of the Bible and what is actually done in practice today are often different. And Sukkot is no exception. In Leviticus, the text instructs us in the gathering of 4 species of produce from the Land. What Jewish People carry today and call the Lulav לולב and the Etrog אתרוג are not what you find in the Bible. Leviticus says to gather fruit from splendid trees עֵץ הָדָר branches of palm trees תְּמָרִים and leafy trees עֵץ־עָבֹת and willows of the brook עַרְבֵי נַחַל. It is a later Talmudic tradition that identifies those today as the fruit of a citrus plant אתרוג (Etrog), a frond of a date palm לולב (Lulav), leaves of the myrtle tree הדס (Hadas) and the branch of a willow ערבה (Arbah). The palm, myrtle and willow are tied together and collectively called the Lulav. 

Its been said before in this blog that the Bible is Divine Language. Every word is Holy and has meaning, the sounds of the words are Holy and have meaning, and the words that are not in the Biblical text are just as important as those that are there. We gather the 4 species without explanation for their meaning or why, and then we are told to ‘Rejoice before the Lord’ (Lev 23vs40) but are promptly not told how. This gives great scope to search for meaning in the 4 species and there are many traditions and explanations for these items. 

One tradition revolves around the aspects of taste and scent in the 4 species. According to Jewish tradition there are 4 types of disciples in the world. 4 is a prominent number in Judaism. There are 4 points to a compass, 4 corners of the earth, 4 winds in the heavens, 4 cups of wine at the passover, various angels have 4 faces guarding the Throne of God, 4 soils in the parable of the Sower, there are 4 types of disciples and 4 gospels. The fact that there are 4 gospels demonstrates the Jewishness of the New Testament. 

The Hadas (myrtle) has a scent but no taste, the Lulav (date palm) has taste but no scent, the Arbah (willow) has neither taste nor scent and the Etrog (citrus) has both taste and scent. Taste and Scent are synonymous with Heart/Faith and Actions/Deeds. And both are needed to be the right type of disciple of the Lord. If you have good deeds and great actions but no Faith it profits you nothing. Similarly when we say we believe in God and do nothing it likewise profits us nothing, for even the demons believe (James 2vs19). We need both Faith and Actions. During Sukkot, the Lulav (the three plants) is held in the right hand and the Etrog in the left. When our children ask us what we are doing holding onto a lemon all the time, we can use this explanation that we are trying to be like the Etrog, trying to be the good disciple by putting our Faith into Action. 

Sukkot is a 7 day Festival. From Exodus 34vs22 it is also known as the Feast of Ingathering, revealing its agrarian origins as a harvest festival. The harvests of the year have been collected. The storehouses are full. We have the most abundance we have ever had through the year, from here on in its winter and the supplies only diminish until we can harvest again. But at this point in time we have the most we will ever have for this year. So its time to celebrate, be joyful and to share and be generous. Leviticus notes several offerings and sacrifices we return to God in gratitude. 

On the 8th day the Jewish People celebrate Simchat Torah שִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה “Joy of the Torah”. This marks the end and beginning of the yearly reading cycle of Bible in the Synagogue. The annual cycle of reading the Torah became predominant in the Middle Ages. The Jewish People held to a triennial cycle in the Second Temple Period. During Sukkot the Scroll of Ecclesiastes is read in the Synagogue. What is the connection? Sukkot is a festival of Joy, yet the book assigned to be read this holiday appears on the surface to be rather depressing and lacking a sense of Joy. 

Ecclesiastes 1vs2 trumpets an almost infamous verse, ‘Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless’. Most certainly the Hebrew can be read in that direct way, that the Preacher is declaring all things to have no meaning, that all is indeed vanity. There are however, no punctuation marks in Biblical Hebrew. Thus we can also read the verse as a question. ‘Meaningless, meaningless is everything meaningless?’. Perhaps Solomon is asking ‘Are you sure that everything is meaningless?’ Which now changes the direction of the whole book. 

Ecclesiastes 1vs14 declares that man’s labour below the sun has no value or ultimate benefit, it is a chasing after the wind. Recall though that what is not there in the text is just as important as what is there in the text. Hence if what man does under the sun is meaningless, then by extension what man does above the sun must have infinite potential and full meaning. Things we build on this world will fade, our efforts eventually grow old and decay. However treasures stored in Heaven remain forever. 
Taken in context of the Sukkoth holiday with its traditions, we have the concept of material abundance, blessings and full supply. Yet it is in our abundance, when we have everything we are reminded that that is all vanity and meaningless. We are commanded to leave our homes, our security and material comforts to go to the Sukkah and there to rejoice at what is truly meaningful. Such as being the right type of disciple. Thus just like an Etrog with both Taste and Scent, we should couple both our labour below and above the Sun together. Pondering as we look up into the stars of Heaven through the roof of the Sukkah knowing that service to the King of Heaven has infinite value and is anything but Vanity and Meaningless.