Sukkot: The oys and the joys

Sukkot: The oys and the joys

While the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur stand on their own with their attendant meaning and majesty, they are easily complemented and completed by the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) and Simchat Torah that follow on their heels.

A great chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, explains that whereas the spirit of repentance and the acts of contrition that represent the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe, are efforts at return and renewal (teshuvah) born out of fear (mi-yirah), the seasonal celebration of the harvest festival of Sukkot – culminating in the Rejoicing of the Law and the completion of the Torah’s annual reading – represent teshuvah, return born out of love and joy (me-ahavah). These two calendar bookends bracket the three-week fall holiday period and set in motion the rhythms of Jewish life for the coming year.

Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is very much an exercise in opposites. It illustrates the dialectical tension of living with bounty, but also laying bare to the world, exposed to all of its ephemeral elements – to the vicissitudes of time and place, to the wily ways of weather and the curiosities of climate. Sukkot pays homage to God’s protective powers throughout the Jewish people’s 40-year desert sojourn. One Talmudic source explains that they were protected by divine clouds of glory that hovered over them throughout their wilderness trek. But another opinion contends that they found their shelter in actual booths, flimsy and impermanent, modest and mobile by necessity.

Successive generations by divine directive in the text of the Torah have been enjoined to recreate this atmosphere and experience during this seven-day harvest festival. For just as we gather the grain and reap the benefits of our efforts on the land, we are reminded of life’s more tenuous tones.

These lessons punctuate this period in the Jewish calendar. The dialectical tension between bounty and blessing, human vulnerability and helplessness, calls the attention of all peoples as we move to the tune of progress and with the march of history. Sukkot gathers with its grain other kernels of universal understanding and worldly wisdom. It speaks directly to causes and concerns shared by humankind.

In the period of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, after the regular daily offering, the officiating priests brought a number of additional offerings. Each day, a different number of these additional offerings were brought. Altogether, 70 oxen were to be offered in the course of the entire Sukkot festival. These 70 oxen, in turn, are said to correspond to the 70 original nations of the world that descended from the sons of Noah, and that are the ancestors of all nations to this day. Tradition teaches that the ancient Israelites brought these sacrifices as atonement for the nations of the world and in an expression of heartfelt prayer for their well-being as well as for universal peace and harmony between them. And so, when Jews in Temple times and Jews today rejoice through the Sukkot celebrations, their hearts go out to the whole world.

The Sukkot experience begs for a measured awareness and a sense of balance between the fickle forces of plenty and perils of nature. Under the shade of its permeable thatched roof, with a view to the sky and the sight of the stars, and with the scent of the greenery, we take our shelter and find our purpose. It is precisely this holiday that mediates between the positive forces of nature and the reckless damage caused by hubris and the abuses of privilege. Sukkot brings us back to basics. And as we enjoy the bounty and blessing at the holiday table, we utter these words in our Grace After Meals – “May the Merciful One restore the fallen sukkah of David.” The Hebrew word for “fallen” is actually written in the present tense, reminding us that we have yet to restore a sense of proper order and mutual respect to our world. For even as our flimsy Sukkot booths usually remain standing for the weeklong holiday, humankind, we have discovered, is still capable of felling its tallest trees and sturdiest structures. Indeed, we long for the celebration of those 70 offerings, which marked our unity in diversity.

This holiday rooted in antiquity and observed in modernity becomes an important community tool for tolerance and understanding. It is a summons to all of us to consider both our local and larger, more worldly needs. We are reminded of our duty to both the “klal” and the “prat” – to both our more parochial concerns along with our larger worries and interests. Our hope is that the spirit of Sukkot, coming on the heels of the High Holy Days, with our lives renewed and refreshed, will, in the true spirit of tikkun olam, counsel us to do well by others and “improve and enhance our world under God’s dominion.”