As the sun sets on Sunday, September 27th, we begin 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 first two days are Yom Tov, followed by five days of Chol HaMoed, the intermediary days. Sukkot’s finale is Hashanah Rabbah on Saturday night, October 3rd.
The origins of Sukkot are from the Torah, which tells us, “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days…so that your descendants shall know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
In addition to commemorating this ancient journey, Sukkot contains important lessons on the very nature of faith, unity, and God’s will.
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,” Jewish 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. Kohanim, ritual priests, performed elaborate ceremonies with water libations and giant willow boughs. It was a spiritual Carnival.
Today, 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, tens of thousands of pilgrims pray at the Kotel, the wall at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount, commemorating the ancient pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Across the world, from deserts to frozen lands, Jews create these temorary homes next to real homes, on porches, sidewalks, driveways, and in courtyards. Each sukkah a different size and shape. Sukkahs can even be found on tall urban roof-tops.
Why do Jews rough it in the Sukkah for the Festival? Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate in a pub, club, snazzy hotel ball-room 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 Apple Watch?
Sukkot is a remedy for our faith in possessions to 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, Sukkot encourages us to help the many people who live on a constant basis without permanent shelter.
While the walls of sukkah can be made of practically anything, and need only be two and half walls, special attention is paid to the Sukkah roof, or schach – which has to be one of the hardest Hebrew words for English speakers to pronounce. The schach is made from bamboo, palm, or fir branches generally. Today, specially manufactured bamboo mats, woven together with sting or other fiber and not metal, are very popular. It’s 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.
Our custom is to live in this temporary home as much as possible during the week. We hold festive meals on the first two days, and participate in as many Sukkot events as we can. Or we just chillax in our own sukkah. The more time you spend in a sukkah the better, and each moment is a mitzvah, a special deed, which brings spiritual blessing.
Besides our temporary Sukkah there are other unique elements of Sukkot that to the uninitiated may seem odd. There is the long, pointy Lulav, palm stalk, 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 and Etrog are joined by the aravot (two willow stems) and the hadasim (three twigs of special myrtle tree) which are waved in six directions during festival prayers. The Midrash relates that whoever fulfills the custom of the four species properly brings peace and harmony among the Jewish people, spritual protection, 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 possess 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 survi
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.