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Thought for the Day: Learning to talk again

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Looking back to a time when technology was non-existent for his Sukkot message, the Chief Rabbi celebrates the face-to-face contact and unfettered hospitality that pilgrims experienced on their way to Jerusalem. Presented as BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, this is a lesson for modern times.

“I call my friend; I find myself talking to voicemail. I phone a so-called help desk; I get music on hold. A recorded message tells me my call is important to them, but they are far too busy to speak to me. I go to a restaurant; at least five of the couples on neighbouring tables are absorbed in emails, social media or text messages to at least ten other people elsewhere. The people face-to-face across the tables barely exchange a word. Each of them is in a world of his or her own, face down to a small screen.

This is absurd! People have forgotten how to talk to one another. Family life and public discourse are all suffering as a result. How did we get to such a point? Have we lost our way?

“The Jewish people in the land of Israel and beyond were required to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate together”

Maybe we can learn something from another journey, or rather a series of journeys, that took place three times every year over the course of more than a thousand years. These were the so-called Foot Festivals, the pilgrimages of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, when the Jewish people in the land of Israel and beyond were required to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate together. The last time these journeys occurred was almost two millennia ago, just before the Temple was destroyed. But these pilgrimages are vividly remembered and the festivals continue to be major calendar events for us.

“Pilgrims had to engage face-to-face with the locals along the way”

The next of these is Tabernacles, or Succot. Tonight and for the next week, many Jews will sit exposed to the elements in frail leafy huts, as prescribed by our tradition, to evoke national memories of an even earlier journey, namely the forty year journey out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, in the course of which odyssey we had no permanent homes.

Three times a year the majority of the people came to Jerusalem. So, it is paradoxical that in the Holy Land, in ancient times, signposts showing the direction to Jerusalem were forbidden.

As a result of this surprisingly unusual system, people were forced to ask for directions. Pilgrims had to engage face-to-face with the locals along the way. They received hospitality, enjoyed one another’s company and shared the inspiration of the Festival of Tabernacles.

They were on speaking terms. They communicated, socialised, celebrated together and gained new friends.

As the late lamented Bob Hoskins tried to persuade us: it’s good to talk. It’s time for us all to learn that skill again.”