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Thought for the Day: Sukkot and the strength of community

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The Chief Rabbi looks to the festival of Sukkot, celebrated by Jews worldwide this week, for inspiration to deal with the scourge of loneliness and social isolation.

Listen to the Audio here.

You can read the full transcript below.


A lonely swan has been in the news this week. It came to Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire last winter with a large group of other whooper swans. Sadly a damaged wing prevented it from returning home in the spring, while the others made the long and arduous journey to their breeding grounds in Iceland.

It is reported that within days the lonely swan’s family and friends will be returning to Frampton Marsh, and a lot of whooping is to be expected when the long-awaited reunion takes place.

If a lonely bird can attract this degree of interest, it draws into sharp contrast the importance of giving attention to, what experts are calling, our ‘hidden epidemic’ of loneliness and social isolation.

Not long ago, the Office for National Statistics reported that Britain is the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’, with our citizens being less likely to know their neighbours, or to have strong friendships, than people anywhere else in the EU.

Ironically, in an age when we are more connected than ever, many people are feeling more alone than ever. According to Age UK, nearly four million older people in this country say that the television is their main source of company.

When encountering this phenomenon, I draw inspiration from the Jewish festival of Sukkot, or Tabernacles, which we are celebrating this week. During Sukkot, which marks the end of the agricultural year, we bless four species of plant, each charged with symbolism, as described by the Book of Leviticus.

A yellow citron fruit; edible and with a wonderful fragrance; a long palm branch, which bears fruit, but has no smell; myrtle leaves infused with fragrant oils, but inedible; and willow leaves, which are neither edible, nor fragrant.

Of all these species, the willow, which seems to have the least to offer, is the only one we retain for the concluding service of the festival. According to tradition, each of the four species represents a different character type, and so on Sukkot, we clasp all four together to symbolise the strength of community. It is only when it is embraced by others that the willow finds its purpose.

Many people feel that community is no longer what it was. Parents feel uneasy about their children playing outdoors by themselves, and neighbours less often turn to each other for help. Sukkot is a celebration of community, because it teaches us what is possible when people feel that they can rely on others for emotional and practical support.

The strongest communities change lives by finding a place for everyone.