Last fall at my shul on Sukkot morning, I had the honor of hearing Rabbi Peter Knobel lament the holiday. I suggest the occasion to be an honor, because Rabbi Knobel’s eloquent words about the difficulty of getting contemporary liberal Jews to identify with what was, in Biblical times, Judaism’s highest holiday period, got me thinking that maybe lamentation isn’t the order of the day.
Although we are technically commanded to be happy and celebrate God during the week-long holiday, yes, the pessimistic Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is traditionally read on the Sabbath that falls during Sukkot. And, yes, we are commanded to build, eat, and sleep in open-air sukkot (“booths”) to remember our people’s 40-year journey in the wilderness.
But the central nature of the holiday is to mark and celebrate bounty. One of Judaism three pilgrimage holidays (along with Pesach/Passover and Shavuot), in Biblical times our people followed the commandment to mark the occasion of the all-important autumn harvest by bringing first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem as offerings. (In his book, Entering the High Holy Days, Rabbi Reuven Hammer in fact positions Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–contemporary Judaism’s highest holy days–as originally serving as preparation for the formerly more important Sukkot.)
Besides building and spending time in sukkot, the main daily ritual of the holiday is saying a blessing over and shaking in various directions the lulav–a bound set of leaves–and the etrog–a Middle eastern citrus fruit resembling a lemon. In Rabbinic Judaism, the species of the leaves and fruit have symbolic meaning related to how individual people relate to the Torah. And what those unfamiliar with Sukkot are probably thinking now is exactly the problem Rabbi Knobel lamented from the bimah.
Other major Jewish holidays include rituals and symbols that don’t need scholarly explanations. Passover has its retelling of the Exodus story, and a seder plate of symbolic items that are described right there in the Haggadah–Passover’s “guidebook” for the ritual seder meal. Chanukah has its candles and jelly donuts. Rosh Hashanah as the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn.) Yom Kippur has, pointedly, not eating. (Or not not eating.)
Sukkot has…vegetation unfamiliar to North American liberal Jews and rituals that are often a.) difficult-to-impossible for many of us to fulfill (most apartment-dwelling Jews simply can’t build sukkot) or b.) esoteric in meaning and requiring scholarly explanation to understand (what in the world is an etrog and why do plant leaves symbolize Torah study?)
Which, of course, means that most of us simply check out after Yom Kippur and don’t bother to observe Sukkot which arrives all of five days later. Rabbi Knobel’s point: holy days that include hard-to-understand symbols just go over most of our heads–and why shouldn’t they?
So what do we do instead as Reform Jews during the Festival of Booths? As Rabbi Knobel saw it last year, we come to shul with our kids on Erev Sukkot (the eve of the holiday) to decorate sukkahs with our kids. And the next morning…we go to work or stay in bed. And yet another Jewish holiday continues to lose its adult meaning.
I agree. But I also wonder whether part of the problem is that we look at Sukkot in unnecessarily narrow terms? For example, Rabbi Roberta Louis Goodman suggests that Kohelet is read during Sukkot to underscore the fading nature of autumn. Yet in Eretz Israel, autumn is the time that flowers come back to life and bloom again, after the harshness and aridity of Israeli summer. Without ascribing the North American experience of autumn into the Israeli season, the ephemeral, back-to-dust nature of life that consumes Ecclesiastes, alternatively can be seen–at least during Sukkot–to portend its opposite.
Truly, on Sukkot we needn’t become so wrapped up in the booths and the boughs and the bemoaning. There is a reason we are commanded to be happy on this holiday. Because, simply, we are here. At this time, on this day, in this moment, we are here, enjoying the bounty of the earth once more which arrives due in small part to our effort and in greater part to means beyond our ability to truly comprehend. To be happy because that which set all in motion today, right now, for you and for me, keeps that motion going. For our benefit.
Whether we sit on a sofa or in a sukkah, are nearer to our births or to our deaths, have no care to open a prayer book or are Torah scholars, the fact remains. Here we are. Yes, so too is all that we would rather not be here with us right now: discomfort; loss; pain. Even death. But so is the joy of family and friends, the blessing of health, the ability to use our bodies and our minds, the ability to smile into each others eyes and see a glimmer of God.
We are here. And our tradition would suggest that God has decreed via the bounty of the harvest in terms both symbolic and literal that here–at least for now–we will stay. What a humbling follow-up to Yom Kippur.
And what are we to deserve that? What are we to be here at all? I am reminded of the mind-stopping power of my favorite term from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l. Radical amazement. How incomprehensibly, inexplicably, miraculously amazing that we are here, alive and aware, at all. How much further beyond words that we can, in our quietest moments, sense that that which put us here, loves use enough to let us stick around for a while?
On Sukkot, how about a denominational dialogue on that? Our children can still decorate our congregational sukkot. But when we sit and eat in them, our families and friends all together, how about we toss around this?
For everything that is good in our life, modim anachnu lach. We thank You. We shouldn’t need a special day for it. How wonderful that we have a week! We don’t need balloons and marching bands. We just need and open heart and a sense of thanksgiving. For beyond booths and lulavs and etrogs, we are all here and that is something. Sometimes, sometimes we realize it. And that’s gratitude for You.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.