The classical rabbis referred to Sukkot simply as HeChag: The Holiday.
We wouldn’t call it that today, when many more people attend services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than on Sukkot. But when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Sukkot was the time to be there.
The Talmud says that one who has not seen the Sukkot water libation ceremony in the Temple has not seen rejoicing!
While the Temple is no more and we no longer offer water libations, for those who observe Sukkot it is still a very happy time. The High Holy Days are a serious time filled with prayer and introspection. But then we come to Sukkot and the fun begins! We move outside and build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling to spend a week communing with nature, experiencing God’s wonders in a way more personal and direct than most of us usually do. We decorate our sukkot so that they are beautiful; we invite family, friends, and community to join us for meals.
The mitzvah is to dwell in sukkot for a week, as it says in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall live in sukkot seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (23:42-43) So the sukkah is a historical reminder of our forty year wandering in the desert where God protected us. It is also the fall harvest festival, the forerunner of Thanksgiving. We look at our bounty and we give thanks to God, provider of all.
We purchase for ourselves a lulav and etrog set and for a week we bless and shake them. After all the words we said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we stop with all the talking and take action. We pick up our lulav and etrog set, hold the four items together, and we shake them as a wordless prayer. We recognize God’s presence in nature, in all that grows, in every corner of the world. It is something so far removed from our regular experience that it feels both strange and meaningful at the same time. It can be done by young and old alike, it takes no practice or training. All you have to do is to open your heart and mind, making yourself ready to try something new and different.
We often think of our Judaism as logical and rational. On Sukkot, though, we not only invite living guests, but our long dead ancestors too! The tradition of Ushpizin comes from the mystical world of Kabbalah; on each of the seven nights of Sukkot we invite seven Biblical characters: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Many also invite seven women from our tradition today as well. There is not yet an agreed-upon list, but many use the seven female prophets named in the Talmud (BT Megillah 14a-b): Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. Other lists include Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Eve, and Ruth.
If you’ve sat through the long services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, then you owe it to yourself to enjoy some of the joy of Sukkot – shake that lulav and eat in the sukkah. Take your Judaism out of the synagogue, sit under the stars and contemplate the beauty of nature and the fragility of life. Be thankful for all that you have. Enjoy the people around you. Slow down, turn off your electronics and breathe deeply.
Don’t miss out on all that Judaism has to offer. The best is yet to come.
Wishing you a very joyous Sukkot!