Even though Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just wrapped up this week, the Jewish calendar gives us no breathing room, and we are on to our next holiday. Sukkot begins tonight at sundown and shifts our focus from the internal reflections of the High Holy Days to the external actions out in the world. During the holiday we commemorate the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness and mark the fall harvest time by dwelling in our temporary sukkah structures. While Sukkot is a time of great joy, the themes of impermanence and vulnerability sit at its core.
Sukkot reminds us of vulnerability in the natural world, which we often forget in our modern lives. The sukkah places us outside to experience the unpredictable whims of Mother Nature in our makeshift huts with flimsy siding and a roof made of branches. In general, we live more insulated and protected lives than our ancestors, with our air conditioning, space heaters, cozy beds, and grocery stores filled with food. But the origins of Sukkot come from a time when the success of your fall harvest might determine whether or not your family made it through the winter. The ancient ritual of shaking the lulav and etrog in every direction was meant to bring God’s protection and blessing over all the corners of your fields. A blessing is something that was not guaranteed, it did not have to be for us. Simply having food and shelter is a blessing through the lens of Sukkot.
The holiday brings to mind psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. In this theory, human needs are represented in a five-tiered pyramid, starting with the lowest level of physiological needs like food and shelter, and moving all the way up to self-actualization. Human beings have to resolve the needs of the lower levels before they can ascend to the next stage: you can’t focus on achieving a career, respect, and complete fulfillment while your needs for a hot meal have not been met. Sukkot strips us all the way down to the bottom of this pyramid, teaching us not to take for granted shelter and protection, a healthy reminder of life’s fragility.
During the week of Sukkot in October 2019, a huge storm of devastating tornadoes hit Dallas, Texas, my hometown. One of the largest tornadoes touched down and took a stroll through my parents’ neighborhood, ripping off roof shingles and uprooting hundred-year-old oak trees. As the storm passed through, one of these massive oak trees fell and crashed directly onto the roof of my mom’s house. While everyone inside the house was safe, the huge tree caused immense damage that took six months of repairs to fix.
I spoke to my parents that night, and they were extremely rattled but grateful to be safe. The next day I attended a Sukkot festival service and shared with a friend there about the frightening events from the night before. He listened with concern, and when I finished, he paused and replied, “Huh, I guess even a house can be a sukkah sometimes.”
Yet gratitude and joy also sit at the core of Sukkot, and we appreciate the blessings in our life all the more so because we know how fleeting they can be. We read Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, as the special scroll of the holiday, a philosophical text written by a man towards the end of his life who wonders what to make of all that he has seen. The text teaches, “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what has been planted…A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance,” (3:1-4). It teaches us that, because all of these moments come into our life, the good, the bad, and everything in between, it will slip away. So we should enjoy and appreciate the good when we are in it.
And so during Sukkot, whether it is hot or buggy or rainy or windy or a beautifully crisp fall evening, we gather together to celebrate the season with joy and gratitude. We welcome guests into our sukkot and perform the mitzvah of eating and dwelling for a short time in our little slice of the natural world. We take the time to appreciate the blessings in our life.
As we move into this holy time, may this Shabbat and Sukkot be filled with embracing vulnerability, opening ourselves to gratitude, and working towards spreading shelter of care and protection over our world.
Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Hannah Elkin