At the heart of the holiday of Sukkot is food (big surprise!). Yet, unlike most Jewish holidays, the emphasis is not on what you eat, but where you eat. Throughout the seven days of Sukkot, tradition enjoins us to trade in our brick-and-mortar homes for backyard “huts” called sukkot in Hebrew. These mirror the structures built by ancient Israelites as they wandered the desert after fleeing Egyptian slavery. Hence, the central ritual of the holiday: eating in the sukkah. Yes, Sukkot acknowledges al fresco dining as a spiritual practice!
Is there something holy about getting raindrops in your soup and having crickets serenade you during dinner? According to Jewish tradition—absolutely! To be a sukkah, a dwelling must have a roof made of organic material, like bamboo or corn stalks, carefully spaced to allow in starlight. By definition, a sukkah is a permeable dwelling. When it rains in the sukkah, you get wet, and when it’s sunny, you get hot.
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, described the sukkah experience as “living flush with life.” A sukkah “is a house that is open to the world…a place where the illusion of protection falls away.”
For 51 weeks of the year, we live in homes that seclude us. We build strong walls and tall fences that help us feel safe and in control. According to Rabbi Lew, Sukkot is our annual opportunity to re-engage with the world around us. And, on Sukkot, we recognize that we, too, are permeable. Our roofs may keep out rain and bugs, but not loss and struggle.
My work at the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) reinforces this truth daily. Wander JSSA’s halls for an hour and you will see families in mourning, parents supporting children with disabilities and individuals seeking assistance for any one of life’s many challenges. On Sukkot, we remember that we cannot avoid these challenges any more than we can avoid rain in the sukkah. Thankfully, we need not face them alone.
Custom dictates that we fill our sukkah with ushpizin (guests in Aramaic). Ushpizin can be family and friends, but also includes memories of teachers and mentors from our past. We welcome all of them into the sukkah as a way of heightening our joy and mitigating feelings of fear and vulnerability. On this holiday, we are to face life together. Is there any other way?
This year, consider ways in which to honor the holiday’s wisdom. Consider taking your breakfast on grass still wet with dew or eating dinner with friends under moonlight. Share stories with your children of ancestors who have inspired you and teachers that guided you. Do so, and you may come to understand why Sukkot has a second name in Jewish literature: zman simchateinu, “our time of joy.” Let it be so.
Photo by flickr user shin3tky