When I was in high school, I used to dread Sukkot. A member of our school’s Jewish Student Union, each year we were tasked with building a sukkah directly in front of the dining commons. The event was called “Pizza in the Hut.” First, we would assemble the frame and panels of the sukkah, and then we would sit inside and eat pizza. This event always seemed to coincide with the time of day when sports let out and the entire student body would stream toward the dining hall for dinner. There we were, eating pizza inside of a poorly constructed wooden hut. Over the years, we did have a few inquiries about conversion as pizza from an off-campus restaurant was a precious commodity at boarding school.
Perhaps I was overly insecure, but I always cringed when I imagined how it appeared to the casual observer. Our prefab sukkah decorated with a few dangling gourds, interrupting the meticulously manicured landscape of my New England prep school. For the remainder of the week, this sad-looking hut would sit prominently in front of the dining hall. As I walked to meals, I would overhear people wonder aloud what this ugly structure was, and I would sometimes hear the informed reply, “I think it’s a Jewish thing?”
It is, in fact, a Jewish thing—a reminder of the instability of the nomadic life of the Israelites in the wilderness. It is a temporary hut constructed at the height of the harvest season. But when I think back to our sad high school sukkah, the problem was not the hut; it was the pizza.
Sukkot is also called Chag Ha’asif, or the Festival of Ingathering. Even before Sukkot took on Biblical significance, it was a harvest festival. Much of the imagery and the contemporary celebration of this holiday take advantage of the harvest that is happening all around us.
For many of us, the notion of harvest is one that is removed from our experience. We do not worry over fields of seedlings, hoping that the weather this year was just right and will yield a bountiful harvest. We enjoy the colorful squash and crisp apples of this season plucked from the towering tables of Whole Foods or from under the tents of the Dupont Circle farmers market on Sundays. Lazily walking from booth to booth, the only work necessary is battling the crowd of other tote-bag-bearing Washingtonians planning their week’s meals.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we simply don’t live in an agrarian society anymore. Many of us spend our days working on computer screens, happily sheltered from the elements. But something is lost when our food appears as if by magic. We read in Psalm 24, “The earth is Adonai’s and the fullness thereof.”
When our lives are not tethered to rain, drought, frost and heat, it is easy to grow distant from the miracle that occurs each time roots take hold, a seed sprouts and new life bursts forth from the earth. Bread comes in loaves, and we never see the sheaves of wheat. Wine comes in bottles, and we don’t traverse the vineyards (unless we are on a fabulous vacation). We are removed from the wonders of the natural world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
This Sukkot, consider the harvest. Don’t just order pizza! Go to an orchard and pick something with your own hands. Try a fruit or a vegetable that you’ve never tasted before. Cook your own pizza, experimenting with new toppings from the farmers market.
As the earth around us yields its bountiful blessing, let’s take some time to wonder at the miracle of creation. Let’s consider the journey of our food to our table, the hands of the laborers who picked and sorted. Let’s pause with gratitude for the blessing of having access to enough food to fill our bellies, while there are so many who do not. “The earth is Adonai’s and the fullness thereof.” During this harvest festival, let us give thanks for this magnificent cycle of planting, sowing, harvesting and eating.