Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur get all the press around here, but one of my favorite Jewish holidays usually sneaks in just before or just after the high holidays. This year in particular, with news of floods and earthquakes filling my heart and head, the festival of Sukkot seems especially worthy of holy envy.

During the weeklong celebration of Sukkot, Jewish families erect a simple shelter, called a sukkah, in their yards and eat their meals and sleep there. This is done in commemoration of the time when the Jews were wandering in the wilderness and lived in crude, flimsy tents, or “booths.” (Although Sukkot is often rendered in English as “The Feast of Tabernacles,” this is misleading, because the shelters really represent the “booths” in which the Israelites lived, not the tabernacle in which they worshipped.) While it is a simple observance, not as elaborately detailed as, for instance, a Seder, I think it may contain all of the essential elements of true religion.

The shelters are to remain open on one side–this is to commemorate Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who turned out to be angels. And the top is supposed to be open to the stars, so that when one lies down to sleep in the sukkah, the heavens are a visible reminder of God’s omnipresence and permanence.

On Tuesday, the morning after Sukkot began, I found myself sobbing in the kitchen, listening to a spokesman for Oxfam International describe the plight of those made homeless by last week’s earthquake in a mountainous region where it will soon be winter. “More tents are needed than exist in the world,” he said. “There simply aren’t enough winter tents anywhere to house these people.” The irony is bitter–some of God’s children reminding themselves of their dependence on God through a symbolic and entirely comfortable reenactment, others experiencing that dependence in such a literal and painful way.

The lesson of Sukkot, though, is that we have no way of knowing from day to day whether we will find ourselves with nothing but God to rely on. We are “the children of [our] Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” All of our defenses–houses, money, insurance, vitamins–all of them are ultimately useless. The earth shakes, the floods roar, and we are all tiny specks on a little planet that we don’t understand nearly as well as we like to think we do.

This is the sweet paradox of the sukkah: it is precisely when we acknowledge the flimsiness and impermanence of the things we build with puny human hands that we are able to most clearly see the stars and commune with the One who fixed them in their courses. And it is when we take down the walls and open our hearts to each other and to strangers that we find ourselves in the presence of angels.

11 comments for “Sukkot

  1. Is it common for modern, American Jews to actually sleep in the sukkah? Or does that depend on where they are along the orthodoxy spectrum?

  2. Kris, how wonderful to see you post again—and even more wonderful to read it! What lovely and heartbreaking thoughts. Shelter in all its various forms—tent, house, covering, whatever—is one of the most resonant concepts in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and maybe in other traditions as well, I just don’t know). You render it just as you live it—perfectly.

  3. Thank you so much, Kristine.

    The drama of needs in the world, when a catastrophe strikes or when horrible conditions linger on, is also that the world’s willingness to give and to help is dependent on the kind of catastrophe and the attention from the media. Last year’s Tsunami spoke to the imagination through its never seen dynamic images, from many sources, on places many in the world knew. And it touched also thousands of tourists from rich nations. It triggered a never seen outpouring of giving to help and rebuild. Or think of Katrina. But an earthquake in a poor, unknown region, reported rather briefly in the media, in static images of flattened buildings from a few sources, does not obtain the same response. It is heartbreaking.

  4. Kevin,

    It is dependent upon the level of orthodoxy, to be sure, but also climate, weather, and stage of life. I come from a fairly secular Jewish family. When my sister and I were kids, we and our parents would spend temperate nights in the sukkah; however, as we got older nobody seemed to have the time or inclination to do so. It is a fun holiday (a harvest festival in addition to Kristine’s excellent explanation), especially after the somber observance of Yom Kippur. My favorite part of Sukkot (besides building the structure) is the (modern?) tradition of ingesting lots of apple cider and doughnuts in the sukkah.

  5. Apple cider and donuts=good. Apple cider donuts=even better! I feel an autumn recipes post coming on…

  6. Nice post, Kris. (And nice to see you posting again)

    Is it possible that the Mormon version of this holiday is the annual (?) father-and-son outing?

  7. Kristine, my thoughts are the same as Steve’s, Rosalynde’s, Kris’s, Julie’s and Kaimi’s–this post is up to your usual thoughtful, illuminating, beautiful level, and it’s level T&S needs to be raised up to more often. Thanks.

    I’m glad Adam L. brought up the fact that Sukkot is also associated with the harvest, with spending time out in the fields, erecting temporary shelters in the midst of one’s busy days, working–joyfully and with praise, one hopes and presumes–to bring in the bounty of the season, knowing full well that tomorrow, or next month or next year, it could be all taken away. I’ve long thought that one of the deep meanings of Sukkot (and this ties in with your important reminder of the many millions who lack shelter, Kristine) is to emphasize how humble our real, lasting, meaningful connection with the world and other people truly is. Enduring the hardness of life, rejoicing in the good seasons and sustaining one another through the bad, should not be seen as involving sophisticated theodicies and strategies and justifications. You have food, you share it; you need shelter, you make it; you need a home, you find it. God’s given His people plenty, and to spare, but so often we don’t see it and thus don’t provide it; maybe taking the time to build a little hut, and break bread within it, is a good way to be reminded at how pleasing, and how desperately needed, the simplest things really are.

Comments are closed.