(from the archives, a very basic introductory article about Sukkos that I hope you’ll enjoy and/or pass on to anyone else who might…)
If you live near a Jewish neighbourhood, drive through it one of these days, and you'll see us out in our yards and even parking lots, building what look like wooden storage sheds, decorated on top with tons of leafy branches, or with bamboo mats. What's up? Well, we're getting ready to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (literally, "booths").
Every fall, Jews all over the world gather to observe this feast, which originally lasted seven days, in accordance with to the Biblical verse "You shall dwell in booths seven days" (Leviticus 23:42). In most parts of the world, it's now celebrated for eight days, which is a good thing, because it's a fun holiday, following close on the heels of the more solemn High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).
This year [2017 – I updated this], it's celebrated from sundown on Wednesday, October 4th until sunset on Thursday, October 12th (Friday, October 13th outside of Israel – meaning it runs straight into Shabbat).
During Sukkot, Jews visit relatives, dance in the synagogue, eat lots of festive meals, all with the tangy smell of fragrant lemon-like etrogim, or citron-fruits (from another Biblical verse: "And you should take… the fruit of goodly trees..." Leviticus 23:40), wafting through the air.
But the central observance of the holiday is this odd shack, pieced together out of two by fours and plywood, or out of canvas, or plastic, or almost any material, and decorated lavishly on the inside so it's suitable for holiday celebrations. As elaborate as they get, though -- and some Eastern Jews go all out with this, decorating their Sukkah with ornate wall-hangings or woven rugs -- they are at the core a symbol of the fragility of our lives.
If we look past the levity of the holiday for a moment, the Sukkah reminds us that no matter what material success surrounds us, our survival is ultimately not in our own hands.
The Little Booth That's So Much More
How can one little shed do all of that? Well, from rich to poor, everyone who observes this holiday has to abandon the comforts of home -- quite literally. In countries where local climate permits, the verse commanding us to "dwell" in the booths is taken very seriously, and people cram sofa beds, mattresses and any manner of sleeping apparatus into their Sukkah.
Here in Canada, most people don't do that, but we do make an effort to eat all the holiday meals in the Sukkah. Trust me, even with a space heater running full-time, it can get pretty nippy out in the backyard in October.
[Note: We lived in Canada when I wrote this – here in Israel, it can get pretty steamy out in the yard in October… we often run a fan in the Sukkah, at least for the first days of the holiday!]
Suddenly, even if you're rich, you're not so comfortable anymore. And even if you thought you were poor, you feel a little poorer. But all along, rich or poor, you're expected to celebrate, with family and friends all around you. You can't just huddle around the pot of soup feeling sorry for yourself, you're supposed to sing and embrace the holiday to its fullest.
Finding Our True Homes
A verse in Psalms gives us a clue as to how we can accomplish this… and an outlook we can borrow from this holiday for the rest of our year. The verse goes, "I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his children begging for bread." (Psalms 37:25) Now, on the surface, this just isn't true. We've all seen righteous people in pain; we've all known good families who have suffered. So what are we supposed to learn here from King David's expression of faith?
Think about homes for a second. If you have one, you probably don't spend much time actually thinking about how lucky you are. And if you do, perhaps you have the idea that you have a home because you earned it… and that others who don't haven't worked as hard as you have, or have just plain failed to find good fortune. Recently, though, I saw a sign outside a church in my neighbourhood: "Most of what we have came from others." We all tend to forget that message. And we particularly forget the One to whom we're most indebted.
Living in the Sukkah reminds us is that the protection of our houses and possessions is temporary. None of the good things we build for ourselves will last. We work hard -- and sometimes take an arrogant attitude to others who are less enterprising -- just to earn material things which are, in the end, worth very little.
During Sukkot, we're suddenly reminded of our fragile connection to the eternal.
Ironically, once stripped of all the lovely things that make us comfortable, we find the only true comfort in life -- we reconnect with God and our own precious souls. Shaken from our daily routine, we fumble to get our bearings and are perhaps shocked into realizing that ultimately, we're not alone.
Living Like Kings… In Wooden Huts
Beyond the levity and excitement, recognizing our own spirituality is the main goal of Sukkot. We take time out to acknowledge that our lives do have meaning, not for how much money we make, or for our leather sofas and designer outfits, but for the connection we forge with the Almighty. With that, we can go through life with a strength that will endure through any trial.
So we come back to King David, and the question of how we can sing in the Sukkah when our toes are freezing. How could he say that he'd never seen "the righteous forsaken?" How can we behave like kings while living in makeshift wooden huts? King David knew what Jews at everywhere at Sukkot time are experiencing in their own lives: the truly righteous person has this kind of strong spiritual connection all year round.
Even if he or she looks impoverished, that person's "home" is not a physical place but an eternal one -- something no credit collector, house fire, or stock market crash can ever sweep away. And that really is a reason to sing!