When the morning temperatures begin to turn cool and crisp, rather than mourn summer’s passing, our family begins to feel a sense of excitement. There a slight sense of desperation, but an even greater sense of anticipation as we work feverishly to complete our sukkah before the beginning of the festival of Sukkot, just a mere four days after the final shofar blast at the close of Yom Kippur.
In that time we manage to squeeze in our annual trip to the orchard, where we collect varied produce that will add that authentic, festive feel to our sukkah. In addition, we glean, collecting apples and other examples of the abundant fall harvest to share with those who might not have access to such produce, delivering it to area food kitchens.
Once the sukkah is complete, we take a moment on the first night to look up at the full harvest moon and count our blessings. Despite what the previous year has brought, in that moment, we feel a deep sense of gratitude for the gifts of life, of bounty and of the sukkat shalom (canopy of peace) that shelters us.
In my mind, Sukkot has always been a holiday of comfort foods. Perhaps it is the time of year, replete with apples, honey, pumpkins and the soups that warm our bodies as they adapt to the cooler weather. Perhaps it is the opportunity to have all of our children working together as we cut apples and bake apple crisps and muffins, as we sip on warm cider. The aromas of a bustling holiday kitchen warm us as we witness the change of season, and the uncertainty accompanying it.
As one of the three harvest festivals celebrated throughout the Jewish calendar year, Sukkot calls us back to our agricultural roots. As we stand here inside our beautiful sukkah and look at the magnificent fruits and grains that represent our harvest, we pause to reflect on the natural origins of the holiday.
Sukkot does not bear the same significance for us as it did for our ancestors—today we are no longer dependent on the harvest. Starvation does still occur in our world, but it is more often due to human failure, rather than to the failure of nature.
The sukkah itself represented hard work and God’s blessing. In the past, prayers for a good harvest were directed towards God. The sukkah reminds us that we have an obligation to help our neighbors in need.
There is a traditional prayer that is recited when one invites any of the ushpizin (one of the traditional biblical guests called to enter our sukkah as a symbol of the way in which we are to invite those in need) to join us in the sukkah: Eternal One, our God, God of our mothers and fathers, be present among us, let us dwell always in the shelter of Your peace, and surround us with Your radiance. Inspire us to feed the hungry and to give drink to all who thirst. Praised be the Eternal One forever. Amen and Amen.
Top photo: Rabbi Shankman (right) with her three children.