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    a Sukkah on a city balcony at night

    Songs of Ascent

    A sequence of fifteen psalms marks our passage through the celebration of the feast of Tabernacles.

    By Atar Hadari

    September 29, 2023
    • Fiona Winn

      Thank you for this moving and uplifting piece. The fabric of ancient text, interwoven with thoughtful reflections on faith, family and life, connect me in a fresh and joyous way, to my own faith, family and life.

    • DeVonna R. Allison

      Thank you, my brother, for sharing your lovely sukkot essay. It brought back such fond memories. I visited Israel during the Feast of the Tabernacles in 2014. I stayed with a married couple in Arial in Samaria and went with them to collect palm fronds (which they lashed to the roof of their minivan) and transport back to their home. I helped them set up their sukkah’s frame and drape its walls with a sheer fabric that moved and swelled in the desert heat of Samaria. Their sukkah was situated on a patio off the upper level of their modest home, overlooking their fruit trees and chicken coop in the garden below. One night, unable to sleep in the heat, I stepped out onto the patio and into the sukkah. There was a chaise inside and laid down to enjoy the fresh breeze while the rest of the household slumbered inside. I remember vividly the peace I felt, watching the stars twinkle in the black velvet sky. Across the valley, in the Palestinian villages, muezzins began to issue the Muslim call to prayer. The call issued forth from each mosque’s minaret and the valleys soon rang with the various calls, each in their own tone. One by one, they faded away and I was left to my thoughts within my hosts’ sukkah where I prayed for peace in the land.

    This sequence of psalms, 120 to 134, was sung in Jerusalem by the Levites, particularly at pilgrim festivals, most especially at Sukkot, “the feast of Tabernacles.” The commandment is to “dwell in booths,” that is to say huts that are entirely temporary dwellings, and remember the time between Egypt and Israel. The Levites, one of the priestly office holders of Israel, sang those psalms standing on the steps ascended by pilgrims as they entered the Temple. Hence their name in Hebrew “songs of ascent” or, as I’ve translated literally, “songs of rising.” They are a sequence of songs that mark the spiritual and physical passage into a holy place. They are not obviously holy, it must be said. The tone of the psalms varies from very personal – akin to a twentieth-century blues song – to self-consciously declamatory, an appeal to a crowd.

    In between considering each psalm’s distinctive voice, I’ll give an account of the tabernacles I have sat in. I’ve never visited the Temple. I’m not saying I’ll never go – one of Maimonides’ thirteen principles is that we Jews await the Messiah and are ready to pack at any moment to depart for the rebuilt Temple. But for most of us our pilgrimage is to our front garden, if we have a garden to put a sukkah up in, and that is the holy place we go to, with all our family, to worship: a simple structure of wood and cloth, both outdoors and indoors, both here and not.

    Psalm 120
    A rising song.

    To the Lord when I’m in trouble – I cry and He’ll requite me.
    Lord save my soul from the slanderous tongue – from a tongue of fraudulence.
    What will it lend you and what will it profit – a tongue of fraudulence?
    The warrior’s arrows are honed with broom embers.
    Woe is me because I lived with Meeskites, resided with the Bedouin of Kedar:
    A long time my soul toiled with those people who hate quiet –
    I love quiet but when I speak they’re all for war.

    The only tabernacle I remember seeing in my childhood was on the roof of my parents’ block of flats in Givatayim, a suburb of Tel Aviv. I don’t remember sitting in it, but recall looking into it once – past the wood and the cloth, it held a chair and some books inside it. It belonged to my parents’ neighbor, an older man. I never sat in it with my parents, nor did I sit in any tabernacle with my maternal grandparents, who left behind their Jewish villages in Eastern Europe to come to Israel, nor with my paternal grandparents, who had been in Israel ten generations. None of my family ever sat in a sukkah. That tabernacle I saw, aged six, on the roof of my parents’ flat, the first home I remember having, is all the ancestral custom I can claim. A place I peeked into at age six.

    Psalm 121
    A rising song.

    I raise my eyes to the hills – where will my aid come from?
    My help comes from God – maker of heaven and earth.
    Let Him not let your foot falter – let your watchman not doze:
    Look neither shall he sleep nor doze, the watchman of Israel:
    The Lord is your watchman, the Lord is a shadow on your right:
    Daytime sunlight shall not strike you, nor the moon at night:
    The Lord keep you from every danger – may He preserve your life:
    The Lord watch over you when you go out and when you come back
    From now until the end of time.

    The first sukkah I ever owned was the one my wife and I were given on the religious kibbutz we moved to. Oddly, while the flat itself was communal property, owned by the kibbutz itself, the sukkah they gave us was not. We made it our own. It had canvas walls wrapped around a steel frame. We moved a table inside the tabernacle’s steel frame and canvas walls, and my wife dragged a mattress out there to sleep on the grass. I took the opportunity of translating Ecclesiastes, the book of scripture that’s read in synagogue over this festival, and my wife wrote the verses out on large strips of paper, and we pinned them to the walls of the tabernacle. Only one guest who visited looked at the translation and, reading it, asked if it was my own. A bible scholar on our kibbutz answered a question of mine about one passage, then when I told her I’d translated the entire text said: “You must have relied on the King James translation.” I replied that I had not. A few years later I had the opportunity to study the King James version of Deuteronomy – or rather, William Tyndale’s, given the later KJV translation is 90 percent identical to Tyndale’s earlier work. Even though Tyndale, as a result, is probably the most quoted translation going, I’ll take my chances with my own. I, unlike Tyndale, can draw on millennia of rabbinic commentaries on those verses – and decades of lived experience of Jews arguing with each other in Hebrew. Neither is a precondition for translating Scripture, but I do think it helps if you can hear the book talking at you: in the case of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps shouting rather irritably. In any case, that wire-and-canvas sukkah covered in my translations of Ecclesiastes, in the first home my wife and I had, was the first tabernacle I called my own.

    Psalm 122
    A rising song of David.

    I rejoiced when they told me – let’s go to the House of the Lord.
    Our feet were standing in your gates Jerusalem:
    Jerusalem that is built like a city that’s all of a piece:
    There where the ancestral houses made pilgrimage –
    Houses of the Lord at the meeting place of Israel
    To give thanks in the name of God:
    Because there were sat the thrones of judgement
    The thrones of the house of David:
    Ask for the welfare of Jerusalem – may your friends do well.
    May there be peace in your citadel – tranquility in your palaces.
    For the sake of my brothers and my friends – I plead for your peace.
    For the sake of the house of the Lord our God – I ask for your good.

    a sukkah in a garden in Jerusalem

    Photograph by Yehoshua Halevi

    My second tabernacle was in the front garden of a house my wife and I rented in Jerusalem after leaving the kibbutz. When our first apartment proved unsuitable shortly after we moved in – the woman downstairs objected to my wife playing the piano – a friend pointed us to alternative accommodation. In our new flat, we had the back garden and our landlord had the front garden but he was happy for us to use his tabernacle in the front garden. Just as she did in the kibbutz, my wife sometimes slept in the sukkah – this time accompanied by our first daughter, aged one. It is somewhat different sleeping in a sukkah in the city than in the country. Instead of hearing the voices of people walking from house to house, you hear cars. But it is still special. We hung no verses from Scripture on that tabernacle. We felt no need to. We were in Jerusalem, and the temple somehow felt close at hand. I never found Jerusalem that holy a place – it is holy in the same way New York is holy: you are in a space that everyone comes to with their dreams – but Jerusalem is special. One thing you do not need to do there is write verses of the Bible on your wall.

    Psalm 123
    A rising song.

    To you I raise my eyes – the one enthroned in Heaven:
    Look, like the eyes of slaves to their master’s hand
    Like a maid’s eyes to her mistress
    So are our eyes to the Lord our God until he forgives us.
    For give us Lord, forgive us – for we are over-filled with shame:
    Long has our soul had its fill from the mockery of the tranquil,
    The disdain of the haughty.

    During that time in Jerusalem, I remember seeing many other tabernacles when I walked the streets at night. In London tabernacles would be set up in the back garden, where passers-by couldn’t see them. In Jerusalem they are little lit cubes of canvas outside every tower block. It’s similar to the experience of walking around Jerusalem on a Friday evening, seeing apartment windows illuminated from within – the residents unable to turn their lights off for the duration of the Sabbath. During Sukkot, even when those lights are switched off during the week, the tabernacles outside continue to shine; it’s like a city full of little art installations, or mini-temples, if you will.

    Psalm 124
    A rising song of David.

    Were it not for God who stood by us – let Israel say:
    Were it not for God who stood by us – when we were risen against by men.
    Then they’d have eaten us alive – in their fury against us:
    Then the water would have drenched, streams washed over our souls:
    Then they’d have risen over our lives, the wicked waters:
    Blessed is God who didn’t let us be prey between their teeth:
    Our lives – like a bird escaped from the snare,
    The snare snapped and we got away
    Helped by the name of the Lord – maker of heaven and earth.

    When we left Israel to go to England, our first home was a small flat beside a hotel in Manchester; our second was a bigger flat on the main road running through Manchester’s ultra-Orthodox district. As our rabbi in London, a Manchester native, once put it, we were in the middle of the tchulent pot – tchulent being a traditional Sabbath stew. But we never sat in a sukkah while we lived in Manchester. Just over a month before the beginning of Sukkot, shortly after we moved to a house of our own, I was offered an autumn’s work back in Israel. We found ourselves back in Jerusalem, living in a sub-let flat with a sukkah in the garden behind. We had two babies by then and my wife made no attempt to sleep in the sukkah. But, taking her rabbinic examination that autumn, she opted to write her exam in the sukkah – only to be interrupted by neighborhood boys playing football in the back yard. Like I told you, Jerusalem isn’t all holy. But she did pass her exam, so perhaps that sukkah contributed to her being allowed to answer questions from women about things they might not want to ask a male rabbi. That was the last sukkah in which we celebrated the festival when we lived in Jerusalem.

    Psalm 125
    A song of rising.

    Those who trust God – like Mount Zion will never fall and abide for all time:
    Jerusalem – is surrounded by hills
    But the Lord surrounds his folk – from now until eternity:
    For the rod of the wicked shall not rest on the fate of the righteous
    So that the righteous not reach out their hand to falsehood:
    Do good Lord, with the good – and those who are straight at heart:
    But those who turn to crooked paths – let the Lord lead those who do wrong:
    May there be peace upon Israel.

    At some point during our stay, I bought a canvas wall on which was painted the skyline of Jerusalem. I’m not sure why I bought it – given we could see the skyline with our own eyes at the time, the painting seemed redundant – but when we eventually moved back to England, we took the canvas with us. When we finally sat in our own sukkah in our own garden in our own house it was that skyline we saw surrounding us. But those canvas walls – designed for Israel’s sultry weather – were never quite adequate protection against Yorkshire rain. I also needed help each year to put the structure up. One year our cleaner Gareth lent us a hand, and on inspection of my own makeshift construction, decided what we needed instead was a gazebo – an outdoor marquee. This rather missed the point of a sukkah – which should sit under palm fronds or some other vegetation which blocks more light than it lets in, but still allows you to see the stars – but we opted to keep Mike’s gazebo so as not to offend him. I remember Gareth and I desperately trying to finish it as the first night of the festival approached. I moved to strike the final nail. “No!” my wife cried out, watching from the living room window: “Hitting something with a hammer to complete it is a classic example of work prohibited on the Sabbath!” It turned out that she was right: the ruling that completing work begun before the Sabbath on the Sabbath is forbidden is called “Makeh Bepatish,” which means, literally, striking something with a hammer. So I never struck that last nail, and the sukkah had to stand without it. It did so for eight days, though later that very first night, the gazebo blew away in a storm.

    Psalm 126
    A song of rising.

    When the Lord returned us to Zion – we were in a dream.
    Then the laughter filled our mouths and our tongues with song.
    Then the nations said: the Lord did a lot for them.
    The Lord did a lot for us – we were rejoicing.
    Bring back Lord how you brought us back – like the Negev streams.
    Those who sow in bitter tears shall harvest rejoicing.
    Walking he goes as he weeps – hauling the sack of grain
    Back he will come singing his song – bearing his bales.

    Our next-door neighbor in Yorkshire is a burly man in his seventies called Dave. When we first made an offer on that house and I flew over from Israel to look at it, I met Dave and thought living next door to a guy like him would be all right. I was correct. The year after the gazebo incident we thought we’d try putting the sukkah in the back garden instead. Dave helped us put it up, and suggested we anchor the tabernacle’s fragile wooden structure to the concrete post that holds up our washing line. Our sukkah never blew away again. It has stayed in that corner ever since, though it began to look different over the years as our children got older and decided to help decorate the walls. Sitting in our first sukkah, back in the kibbutz, we would hear passers-by outside as we ate. Now we just hear Dave and his wife Jean. Neither is Jewish, and neither knows much about the Jewish calendar, but whenever autumn begins to creep in they’ll ask us when we’ll be sitting in our sukkah again.

    Psalm 127
    A rising song of Solomon.

    If the Lord won’t build a city – its builders toiled for naught.
    If the Lord won’t guard a city – its watchman watches for nout.
    For naught you all rise early and sit up late
    Eaters of hard earned bread:
    So He will give his friends – rest:
    Look, the Lord’s estate is kids – paid in the fruit of the loins.
    Like arrows in a warrior’s hand – so are a young man’s sons.
    Happy the man who fills his quiver with them
    He won’t be shamed when he parleys with foes at the gate.

    a Sukkah on a city balcony at night

    Photograph by Several seconds

    A couple of years ago some friends of ours were clearing out their garage when they found a wooden sukkah. It had been left with them for safekeeping by friends who had moved to Israel, and enough time had passed that they presumed those friends would not be back for their sukkah. They asked us if we would take it. My wife, who had been trying for years to convince me to give up the canvas walls with the skyline of Jerusalem, leaped at the chance. And so Dave and I put the walls of this wooden sukkah up in our back garden. The new sukkah has no roof. And it is still draughty. And, thanks to the previously mentioned Yorkshire rain, the floor is often just mud. But compared to the old canvas structure, it’s solid, and far warmer: you can sit in it without the wind cutting right through you. I still miss looking at the Jerusalem skyline every year when Sukkot begins. But there is something to be said for sitting in the shade of the wooden walls with green foliage hanging down over them. And if I trail an extension cord from my kitchen window, as Dave suggested to me one year, I can switch the light on inside the sukkah, and I can see my soup.

    Psalm 128
    A song of rising:

    Happy is every one who fears the Lord – who walks in His pathways:
    The toil of your hands when you should eat – will make you happy and do you good:
    Your wife, like a fruitful vine in the corner of your house,
    Your sons like olive saplings gathered around your dining set:
    See, that’s how he’s blessed, a man who fears God:
    May the Lord bless you from Zion – and see the good of Jerusalem all your days
    And see children from your children, Peace upon Israel.

    A couple of years back my eldest daughter, the baby my wife slept with in our first Jerusalem sukkah, was away one night of the festival, visiting a friend in Manchester. The two went on a sukkah crawl. Instead of visiting a series of bars, as you do in a pub crawl, enjoying one drink in each, they went from one sukkah to another, saying hello, having a chat or a snack with the family it belonged to, and then moving on. We were visiting Manchester recently as a family, and visited a rabbi’s house for a barbecue on his roof deck. My daughter said she’d been there before during her sukkah crawl. “It’s a great way of getting to know a community,” she said to me, “You see exactly who these people are. Their sukkah tells you an awful lot more about them than their living room.”

    Psalm 129
    A song of rising.

    They bugged me a lot since I was a boy – let Israel say:
    They bugged me a lot since I was a boy
    But still couldn’t handle me:
    They ploughed a furrow on my back – Drew their row long:
    The Lord is a righteous man – He cut the reins of the no account:
    May they falter and fall back – All who hate Israel:
    May they be like grass on a roof – that’s dry before it buds:
    That doesn’t fill the reaper’s hand and pocket of the gathering:
    So passers-by do not say: The blessing of the Lord upon you.
    We have blessed you in the name of the Lord.

    When our family moved to Oxford for six months – my wife had taken up a post-doctoral fellowship at the university – we became friends with a local Chabad rabbinic couple. We’ve been going back there to visit them at least once a year since then, sometimes during Sukkot, when we sit in their huge tabernacle that extends over most of their back garden. I’m never there to see them put up the sukkah; I think some of the young men studying there help construct it. We’re usually there for the festival’s end, and so I help my friend the rabbi to take the big tabernacle down. The first year I did so a handful of students lent a hand. Over the years I’ve been going there the number of students helping to disassemble the sukkah has dwindled, even though the number of people who sit there over the course of the festival keeps growing. It’s starting to feel like it’s just three of us pulling the sukkah down each year – myself, my rabbi friend, and my oldest son. It’s a delicate business. My friend has big electric heaters hanging over the steel frames of his tabernacle – his students won’t sit in a cold sukkah and want more light than one bulb to see their soup by. But after the heaters are taken down and the canvas walls are folded away comes the most memorable part of the whole process – dragging away the long pine branches that shaded the sukkah from above, and leaving them stacked behind my friend’s garage for municipal rubbish collectors to pick up. It’s not quite as holy as Jerusalem, but my friend’s sukkah is always filled with students and light and talk. But at the end of the festival we always drag those pine branches away, and I’m always a little sad.

    Psalm 130
    A song of ascent.

    From rock bottom I’ve called to you     Lord: My Lord     hear my plea:
    Let your ears be alert     to the sound of my imploring:
    If you should keep track of sins Lord – My God who will be left standing?
    Because forgiveness is with you so that you shall be feared:
    I hoped Lord, my whole life I hoped     and of His word I was expectant:
    My life is for the Lord     like those who watch each morning, watch each morning:
    Israel expect the Lord     for with the Lord is kindness     and great the redemption with Him
    And He will ransom Israel     from all of his sins.

    Each night of Sukkot, before you start the meal you recite a text inviting a different biblical guest to join you – the traditional list is Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David, in that order. This year I was asked to help translate a mini-siddur for a Modern Orthodox rabbi in the United States who asked me to append a list of female biblical guests to the traditional list – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Miriam, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther. I confess, as my kids grow older, trying to fit six members of our family inside that little shed – three people either side of the little table – makes me think I’d have trouble fitting Abraham in there, let alone fourteen other guests. The thought of all the biblical figures above descending on our little sukkah at once … it’s enough to make you resist even the best-intentioned liturgical elaborations.

    Psalm 131
    A song of rising of David.

    Lord, my heart wasn’t high and my eyes not uplifted
    And I didn’t walk like a big shot after what’s beyond my reach:
    If I have not dropped and stilled my soul
    Like a burped baby sits on its mother
    My soul is sated within me:
    May Israel count on the Lord from now until the end of time.

    Each year there has been a different child or set of children helping me put up the sukkah. My older son is helpful with muscle, my younger son is helpful with nails and hammering. But I have to say neither can compete with the attention span or the stamina of my younger daughter Juliet. She would stand there attaching canvas to steel frame for hours, and now that we have a wooden sukkah she will stand on a chair balancing the odd branches of foliage I have gathered over the wooden frame that will make up the roof. Of all my children, Juliet is the one with the patience to stand there decorating the sukkah with pictures or tying pieces of fruit to string to hang off the boughs of the roof, and she never gets annoyed or bored, or tired, until the job is done. She makes a home for our family outside of our home, from wood and leaf and pictures and string.

    Psalm 132
    A song of rising

    Remember Lord about David – all the pains he took:
    That he swore to the Lord to Jacob’s guardian
    If I should come under my roof
    If I should climb into my bed sheets
    If I should give my eyes rest, my lids a break
    Until I find a place for the Lord
    A habitation for Jacob’s guardian.
    Look, we have heard it in Efrat, found it in Judea:
    Let us come to His abode, let us bow to His footstool:
    Rise Lord to your rest – you and your ark of glory:
    Let your priests wear justice robes
    And your followers rejoice
    For the sake of David your servant – do not turn back your anointed.
    The Lord swore to David in truth – He will not repent it.
    From the fruit of your loins I’ll choose for the throne of Israel:
    If your sons keep my covenant and this witness I will teach them
    Their sons too for all time shall sit upon your throne:
    For the Lord elected Zion – coveted it as his abode.
    This is my resting place for all time – here I’ll sit for that I yearned for;
    Its food I’ll bless and bless – I’ll fill her beggars full of bread:
    And her priests I’ll dress in my deliverance – her followers shall sing a ditty:
    There I’ll raise the horn of David, there set a light for my anointed
    I’ll dress his foes in disappointment but on him his crown shall glow.

    Sukkahs on the balconies of an apartment complex

    Photograph by Yehoshua Halevi

    I cannot imagine sitting in that sukkah without our children. But I know many people must – that one day, when our children are older and move away, I might be back where we were when we had that very first sukkah in the kibbutz, all those years before, my wife and I sitting in the tabernacle by ourselves. I wonder what it’s like – do you then ask Abraham to bring Sarah along, heck, why not bring along some of his grandkids that never made the list? Is Reuben doing anything tonight? Ask Reuben, and while you’re at it, ask Benjamin too! It’s a very intimate place, the sukkah, but it’s not meant for sitting in alone.

    Psalm 133
    A song of rising of David.

    Look how good and how pleasant
    Brothers sitting together:
    Like oil that’s good on your head
    Dripping down to the beard, the beard of Aaron
    As it goes down to the ends of his robe.
    Like the dew of Mount Hermon that comes down on Zion’s mountains
    For there the Lord appointed to be a blessing – life everlasting.

    This is the only point where I will speak about the text of one of the psalms and it is to note that at no point does the Pentateuch report that oil dripped down Aaron’s beard. Rather, it says, “And he poured the anointing oil over the head of Aaron and anointed him to sanctify him.” (Leviticus 8:12) There is, therefore, only a tradition that the oil ran down his head to his beard as a sign of blessing, and the pilgrims who celebrate Sukkot in Jerusalem pour oil on their heads at their feast so that as it drips down to their beards they recall Aaron’s place as a priest and take a part of the sanctity and blessing that anointing imparted to him. That is why the oil trickles down.

    Psalm 134
    A song of rising.

    Look – bless the Lord – all who serve the Lord.
    Who stand in the Lord’s house – night after night:
    Raise your hands to the Holy of Holies – and bless the Lord:
    May the Lord bless you from Zion – the maker of heaven and earth.

    The songs of ascent were arranged as a sequence to celebrate an approach to the most magnificent building possible on the most august public occasion possible, but looking back through my own experiences it strikes me that their purpose today is almost the opposite. Their associations are entirely ordinary: psalms sung in the humblest buildings possible, in a private, intimate atmosphere. People may visit other families in their huts or go to big public celebrations of the festival, but most people eat their meals in a small, ramshackle sukkah that might not keep the rain out – but keep the sense of special occasion in. Instead of the physical journey up the steps of the temple, the psalms today mark the staging posts of an inward journey. We approach the festival in a celebration of abundance, of feasting and thanksgiving, and then we suddenly exit our comfort zone entirely. Sitting in the sukkah, outside of our homes and familiar surroundings, we continue to celebrate – but this time with minds focused on the loved ones we sit alongside. We still sing the songs of ascent just as our forebears did in the days of the temple. And when the songs have all been sung, although we no longer enter the temple to offer sacrifice, we still receive the law. On Simchat Torah every adult who wishes it can be called up to the Torah and hear the opening verses of Genesis read in their name. That is something you never got in the Temple, however many Levites may have been singing and however magnificent the steps were as you came up them to bring your offering. We sit inside small, humble, homemade Temples with our loved ones: we eat, we talk, we read scripture, and then, at the end of our ascent, every year, we hear the Torah, and emerge to hear the law one to one, literally holding the base of the scroll with our own hand, at the end of our ascent.

    Contributed By AtarHadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

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