Scripture: Nehemiah 8:2, 3, 13-18
By Kim Reindl
Opening questions: Are you familiar with any Jewish holy days or festivals? If so, which ones? Share what you know. Has your knowledge of these holidays taught you anything about God?
When I was a seminary student I took a class called “Introduction to Judaism.” My professor, an orthodox Jew, gave me a greater understanding of Jewish perspectives, both in modern times and historically. I came to learn that modern day Judaism, like modern day Christianity, is not one uniform religion, but rather consists of multi-variant expressions of devotion to God that come from the same sacred body of writings and historical traditions. I also learned the importance of the Jewish high holy days and festivals. During the fall of that year, I learned that the month of Tishri, which is during the months of September and October, is the busiest and most important time of the year for Jewish holidays. Tishri starts with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), is followed soon by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and then only four days later commences the longest Jewish festival, which consists of three distinct holidays combined into one continuous celebration: Sukkot (the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles), Shmini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of the Solemn Assembly), and Simc?at Torah (Rejoicing in the Law).
One of the holidays that caught my attention was the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. During this festival, Jews are instructed to construct a sukka, which is a temporary dwelling large enough for a family to eat and live in during the holiday. The sukka symbolizes the booths or tents that the Israelites lived in during their forty years of wandering in the desert (Leviticus 23:42-43). The sukka is to be made of natural materials, usually cut branches, plants, or bamboo, and is to be constructed with a loosely covered roof so that people inside can still see the sky and the stars. According to Jewish law, during the festival all meals should be eaten in the sukka. Jews are taught that the sukka “provides a corrective to the natural tendency of becoming excessively attached to turf. It instructs Jews not to become overly rooted, particularly not in the exile.”* Furthermore, during certain festival prayers, the people are to wave lulav (palm branches) and etrog (citron; these look like giant lemons) up and down, left and right, to represent the four points of the world in honor of God, to whom the whole world belongs.
Today’s scripture passages tell us that on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri) Ezra was summoned by the people to read from the book of the law of Moses. This was a monumental moment in the process of reconstruction. Ezra was devoted to leading the people in a return to the teachings of Torah. On this important day, Ezra stood before the assembly, both men and women, in an area of town, “before the Water Gate,” where even those who were ritually impure could be present, and made the Torah accessible to all the people (Nehemiah 8:3). The scripture indicates that the people were so moved upon hearing the law that they wept (Nehemiah 8:9). Through this public reading a foundational aspect of the faith community was established. The people were convicted and inspirited to study and implement the teachings of the scripture.
The next day a smaller group of family heads and temple officials convened to study the law with Ezra. Evidently the people had become so ignorant of biblical regulations that they were no longer familiar with the holiday of Sukkot (Festival of Booths) (Nehemiah 8:14). Yet, upon hearing the words of the law they committed themselves to instituting this festival. We are told, “And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them…and there was very great rejoicing” (Nehemiah 8:17).
It seems especially significant that the first response in a rededication to the teachings of Torah took place through the celebration of the Festival of Booths. For those who had lived in exile, the Festival would have served to remind them of God’s divine providence. As they remembered the Exodus from Egypt, the people must have drawn parallels to their recent “exodus” from Babylon. As they heard the words of the law read every day during the Festival, they must have been taught how the Israelites were transformed by the receiving of the law at Mount Sinai. As they ate in booths as their ancestors had in the desert, they must have thought about the similarities between how God had provided for the Israelites in the wilderness and how God had provided for them while in Babylon. As they lived in the booths and recited their prayers, they must have contemplated the vastness of God’s grace that extends to all the corners of the earth.
I can imagine that life experience had taught the returnees that ultimate assimilation into any one particular place or culture can be dangerous. They had seen it in those who had chosen to remain in Babylon. They had seen it in the “people of the land” who had adopted pagan ways (Ezra 4:4). They had seen it in themselves, in their loss of history and tradition. The Festival of Booths, which is celebrated in the midst of temporary dwelling places, must have served as a strong reminder not to become excessively attached to any one place. Yet, as they sat in their sukka staring up at the stars, they could rejoice in knowing that God’s love is not rooted in place or culture, but rather is rooted in the heart, a dwelling place that moves with God’s people wherever they may go.
*Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 2001), 631.
Questions for further reflection:
• Jews live with an understanding that it is important not to become “overly rooted.” In your opinion, what are the dangers of becoming “overly rooted” in any particular place or culture?
• Jesus was an itinerant pastor, moving to wherever he was needed. In fact Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). Even if we are not itinerant (continually moving), what lessons can be learned through an attitude of itinerancy?
Kim Reindl chairs the Discipleship Ministry Team for the North Georgia Conference and is available to lead retreats, workshops, and seminars through Pomegranate Christian Education & Formation, www.pomegranatece.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.