As the sun sets on Wednesday, October 12th, the Jewish community begins the festival of Sukkot, a spiritual harvest festival commemorating the historic journey of the ancient Hebrews across the desert, the bounty of the fall harvest, and our reliance on God.
The Torah states, “You shall dwell in sukkos seven days...so that your descendants shall know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” However, Sukkot is much more than a way to commemorate this ancient journey, for it is a lesson on the very nature of faith, unity, and God’s will.
As we have discussed, the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a time of judgement, repentance and forgiveness. But we don’t end there. These Days of Awe are followed by many days of rejoicing and praise.
Called simply “The Festival,” our history books record Sukkot as was one of the greatest festivals anywhere in the ancient world. Thousands of musicians, performance artists and dancers filled the streets of ancient Jerusalem. The priests performed elaborate ceremonies with water libations and giant willow boughs. It was a spiritual Carnival.
Today, in the Jewish diaspora, while there are community celebrations, Sukkot is celebrated in more modest fashion. Families and communities build a sukkah, a temporary shelter for eating, celebrating, and sleeping. Each sukkah bears the mark of it’s creator and are often decorated with tapestries, lights, hanging fruits, posters, and carpets.
In Israel, Sukkot is celebrated for seven days with tens of thousands of pilgrims praying at the Kotel, the wall at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount, commemorating the ancient pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Not a home, porch, or backyard in Israel goes without a sukkah, each one a different size and shape. Shared sukkahs can even be found on roof-tops and nestled in scenic courtyards.
Why do Jews rough it in the sukkah for the festival? Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate in a pub, club, or frat house?
Let me explain. On Sukkot there is a special mitzvah, an obligation, to rejoice and be happy. What makes a person truly happy? Is it a new car, season premiers or the iPhone 4S?
Sukkot is a remedy for the troubling belief that our possessions make us happy. Surrounded by the walls of our temporary dwelling place, we remind ourselves that focusing on our friends, family and relationship with God can make us sustain our happiness.
More recently, as Jewish communities do not feel the constant threat of tyrants and anti-Semitism, Sukkot encourages us to help the many people who live on a constant basis without permanent shelter.
Special attention is paid to the sukkah roof, or schach - which has got to be one of the hardest Hebrew words for English speakers to pronounce. The schach is made from palm, fir or other thatch-like material, and it imperative that the schach provide sufficient shade, but is a not solid roof that can keep out the elements and prevent us from seeing the brightest stars.
Besides our temporary sukkah there are other unique elements of Sukkot that to the uninitiated may seem odd. There is the long, pointy Lulav, which at a casual glance resembles an ancient light-saber, and the Etrog, a citron fruit with an eerie resemblance to some ancient hand grenade.
The Lulav an Etrog are comprised of four species, willow, palm, myrtle, and citron, which are waved in six directions during festival prayers. The Midrash, an ancient commentary on the Talmud, relates that whoever fulfills the custom of the four species properly brings peace and harmony among the Jewish people, and love in his heart for all peoples.
Another deeper lesson of Sukkot can best be understood by another name of the festival. The holiday of Sukkot is also called the Festival of the Harvest - commemorating the time when we gather our crops and fill our storehouses.
If one has been blessed — our profits outweigh our expenditures, our portfolio has grown and our wine cellars are full and satisfaction and trust fill our soul — it is at that moment that the Torah tells us to leave our home and dwell in a sukkah. The frail booth teaches us that neither wealth, good investments, IRA’s or even real-estate are life’s safeguards. It is God who sustains us all, those in palaces and those in tents. Any glory or wealth we posses came to us from God, and will endure so long as it is God’s will.
And if our toil has not resulted in great blessing — our investments went south, we lost our job and nest-egg, our cellars are empty, and we face the approaching winter with mounting debt and bills, living off credit from month to month, forlorn and fearful for how we will survive— then as we enter the sukkah we find rest for our troubled soul. Divine providence is more reliable than worldly wealth which can vanish in an instant. The sukkah will renew our strength and courage, and teach and inspire us with joy and perseverance even in the face of affliction and hardship.
May we be blessed to rejoice and put our faith in God, and experience blessings of peace, shelter, and sustenance throughout the whole world.