This time of year we are inundated with metaphors to help us understand God and the theme of the holidays. At Kol Nidrei we enter a court with God presiding as judge and ask to have our vows annulled. Later on Yom Kippur, we pray to be sealed in the Book of Life; this metaphor challenges us to live a life of good deeds, a life we can be proud of. At the end of the day, we stand at the open ark and feel the urgency of the moment as we read how the gates are closing.
Depending on when you receive this newspaper, and when you have time to read it, you may be preparing for Yom Kippur and its many metaphors that are intended to make our repentance before God more thoughtful and enduring.
If you’re like me, though, Yom Kippur will be over by the time you get to this column and the Jewish community will already be preparing for Sukkot. Sukkot is filled with symbolism too, much of which emanates from the sukkah itself. The sukkah is by definition a temporary structure. In Leviticus 23:42, the Torah commands us to sit or dwell in the sukkah for seven days.
The symbolism of the Sukkah is multilayered. Leviticus 23:43 says it is to remind us of the booths our ancestors dwelt in after the Exodus. Other traditions say that it replicates the shelters our ancestors built in the fields during the harvest time after settling in the land. The prophet Amos invokes the sukkah as a symbol of a future redemption: “In that day, I will set up again the fallen sukkah of David: I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old….”
Another value the sukkah symbolizes is hospitality. A midrash traces this connection back to our patriarch Abraham, who offered hospitality to three strangers under the shade of his tree. For this act of kindness, God protected the Israelites in their booths during the years of wandering in the desert. Today, the hospitality of the sukkah is both real and metaphorical. Many families take delight in hosting loved ones or being hosted during the week of the festival. But there is also a beautiful tradition of inviting ushpizin, heroes from Jewish history, into the sukkah. Thus even if you are by yourself in the sukkah, you are not alone.
The sukkah also represents gratitude. That we are commanded to be partially homeless one week a year is a mandate to be grateful for the homes we have and the comfort they provide. Also, many fill their sukkot with fruit, gourds, or other symbols of the harvest. We are reminded that food is a gift from God.
To make the symbolism of Yom Kippur or Sukkot meaningful, it helps to have what I call “sacred imagination.” These rituals build on everyday experiences. We see courtrooms on television. Some of us keep journals or blogs, writing the significant events of our lives down for later reference. I’m sure each of us has chased after a bus or a train whose doors are about to close; the success of your day may have hinged on whether you arrived before the doors closed. Using sacred imagination to transform these experiences into moments of holiness can help us truly appreciate Yom Kippur.
Similarly, each one of us has been in a place where we felt unstable, unsafe, or unsure. We made the best of it until we could get back to our comfort zone. The sukkah places us there temporarily, but with our sacred imagination we offer gratitude to God and feel the presence of loved ones. Then the festival becomes transformative.
May you be sealed for life and blessing, and may your festival be joyous.