Sukkot and the Mystery of Nature's Abundance

This morning, we have a choice
Every morning we have a choice
Throughout our lives we can choose how we will engage the world
We can mourn what we lack
Or rejoice at what is
We can wail with the hardship life brings
Or pour out gratitude for every bit of joy and beauty we find
Gratitude is more than a response. It is a guide.
Great gratitude can shine like a bright blaze for us and one another
Leading us to more beauty, more joy, and an ever truer guide  
We kindle this flame in thanks for all that is and all that may be
May it bring us the wisdom of gratitude


Prayer for the Great Family, by Gary Snyder

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
and to her soil: rich, rare and sweet
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing, light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowering spiral grain
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave and aware
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep— he who wakes us—
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars— and goes yet beyond that—
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us—
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.
so be it.

Gratitude, by Mary Oliver

What did you notice?

The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark;
big-chested geese, in the V of sleekest performance;
the soft toad, patient in the hot sand;
the sweet-hungry ants;
the uproar of mice in the empty house;
the tin music of the cricket’s body;
the blouse of the goldenrod.

What did you hear?

The thrush greeting the morning;
the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren,
then the deep cup of the hour of silence.

What did you admire?

The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist;
the onion, sheet after sheet, curved inward to the
pale green wand;
at the end of summer the brassy dust, the almost liquid
beauty of the flowers;
then the ferns, scrawned black by the frost.

What astonished you?

The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.

What would you like to see again?

My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue, her
recklessness, her loyalty, her sweetness, her
sturdy legs, her curled black lip, her snap.

What was most tender?

Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool;
the kinks and turns of the tupelo’s body;
the tall, blank banks of sand;
the clam, clamped down.

What was most wonderful?

The sea, and its wide shoulders;
the sea and its triangles;
the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.

What did you think was happening?

The green breast of the hummingbird;
the eye of the pond;
the wet face of the lily;
the bright, puckered knee of the broken oak;
the red tulip of the fox’s mouth;
the up-swing, the down-pour, the frayed sleeve
of the first snow—

so the gods shake us from our sleep.

Message, by Andy Pakula

This evening is the start of the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Sukkot is very much a harvest festival - one of the sort that just about every culture developed at some point.

When I first came to London and the congregation that eventually became New Unity, we had an annual harvest festival. I was a bit surprised when it first happened… People brought fruit and vegetables and, after the service, a man in the congregation began to pick them up one by one and - to the 15 people who attended - would auction them off. 

‘How much do I hear for this courgette?’ 10p… do I hear 15p? Needless to say, this went on for a while…  Do I hear 5p for this apple? 5p?

I have no idea where the money went. 

I’ll be going to the US for Thanksgiving - a festival not much more connected to the real depth of the season… It’s 5% gratitude, 10% American Football, and 85% eating until you can’t eat anything else… 

Sukkot is celebrated for a full week and it involves building a special hut each year called a sukkah. This is ours. It should be outside and you should be able to see the sky through the top, but we’re New Unity. We adapt… 

During the week of Sukkot, Jewish families are meant to decorate the Sukkah, dine in it, and even sleep in it. Although any ritual can very easily become stale - any one of them can turn from meaningful to rote performance - the immersive tradition of Sukkot has the potential to help reconnect with the natural world. 

And that’s what I would like us to do today - bring to mind and to heart the power of our connection and interdependence with the natural world.

We are exploring the idea of mystery from this month until the end of December. You don’t necessarily expect mystery extolled by a scientist. Isn’t a scientist supposed to demystify everything down to its basic parts? Identify its atoms and ones and zeros and how exactly they work together? but here is what Albert Einstein had to say:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. [One] to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: [their] eyes are closed.”

Awe and wonder and mystery. How often do we manage to touch these feelings? How quickly we pass by beauty in the street… How quickly we eat without tasting, grab without touching, listen without hearing, and look without seeing… 

Nature can be a place for awe and wonder and mystery. The simplest thing - a fruit or flower - can be the prompt for this most beautiful experience.

Perhaps we need to imagine ourselves in a different time. Let’s take ourselves back long before industrialised food production, long before we understood so very much about what made plants grow.

And let’s imagine ourselves knowing only about earth, water, and sunshine. With these simple, ubiquitous ingredients, a seed can develop into a plant and that plant can give us life-sustaining food. Imagine a squash growing on a vine - growing from a flower to a tiny fruit, to a larger and larger green or yellow or orange wonder - seemingly miraculous. You harvest this wonder or another fruit or vegetable. You feel the smoothness, the weight and solidity. It is a gift from the mystery that sustains the lives of your family and delights your senses.

What response can there be besides gratitude? How could we not look upon the mystery of nature’s magic with wonder, with awe, and with a deep, abiding, giving of thanks?

Take a moment to put yourself in that place of wonder - that place of gratitude…


If we bring ourselves back to the present now, the squash comes from Tesco or Sainsbury or - for a more posh option - Waitrose. We don’t see it grow. If we did, we’d realise that no one is watching its miraculous change from flower to fruit with wonder. It’s one of millions in neat rows, treated with fertilisers and pesticides that will reduce the uncertainty of the harvest. Careful crop breeding has lessened that uncertainty even more. 

And we understand now what makes growth go in the directions it does. We can map the genes that make a larger or smaller fruit - sweeter, more durable, smoother, green, orange, or yellow.

Can we continue to live with awe and wonder at the mystery when the the mystery is not so very mysterious anymore. Can we be grateful even when the uncertainty is lessened?

As a scientist, I know a bit about how a living thing grows. There is complexity and layer upon layer of interaction that are stunning in their enormity - awe inspiring in their subtlety. 

Knowledge need not destroy wonder. Developing a sophisticated knowledge of art can make some art tedious, but it magnifies the delight of the encounter with true mastery.  

The more we understand the natural world, the more beautiful the picture can become. 
We don’t need to understand the genetics and the uncountable interactions and signals that cause even the simplest of living things to become as they are.

If we can stop long enough to appreciate. If we can put our senses to work again, we can love elements of nature simply for what they are. We can delight in the bright orange of a pumpkin or the earthy smell and dark dark green of kale.

The closer we look - the more mindfully we touch and smell and taste - the more the wonder emerges.

This is a place for more than prose. It is a place for poetry and image that connect us to deeper things - that reconnect us to the depth of our connection to all things. 

Write a haiku (5-7-5) on fruit and place it in the Sukkah (or hang it).

[Congregation Participates]