During Elul we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and then we prepare for Yom Kippur. These two observances loom large in the Jewish calendar and in our minds. Our synagogues are filled for a couple of days.
Then we come to Sukkot. Once known as He-Hag—The Festival—it almost seems to vanish from our lives these days if we are not careful. Yet, of all our festivals, it is perhaps the most fully described in Torah. Leviticus 23: 39-43 describes the observance in detail. We still take up the species as specified and we still dwell in booths. The only thing missing from our observance are the offerings and sacrifices made during Temple times.
Though we may well feel in need of a break after the recent attempts at juggling two calendars and two aspects of our lives, only experiencing the solemnity and introspection of Yom Kippur can leave one with a skewed view of Judaism and of Jewish life.
Sukkot (and Simchat Torah) are known as Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. We need to remember that Judaism is about joy as much as it is about solemnity. Sukkot’s physicality also provides a counterpoint to the cerebral effort of the High Holydays. Sukkot can help remind us that the goal of Judaism is not that we should just sit in the synagogue at prayer, but that we must build a joyful and holy world with “the labor of our hands” (Psalms 90:17).
Our sukkot can also teach us much about the fragility and vulnerability of our lives. No matter how good we get at building them, everyone’s sukkah is a fragile, temporary structure. By its very nature a sukkah is vulnerable to storms, rain and wind (and where I am originally from, to snow), with the potential for collapsing walls and escaping schach. And so is everyone’s life. This may not be a message we want to hear, but it is one we cannot ignore. Sukkot brings this message home to us in a very powerful way.
One of the old customs of Sukkot was the inviting of Ushpizin—guests. Symbolically we once invited our ancestors to dwell in the sukkah with us. But beyond that symbolic inviting, Sukkot encourages us to practice hospitality. By its very nature, a sukkah is open—we can see it as representative of Abraham and Sarah’s tent and a reminder of their hospitality. By opening ourselves and our sukkot to others, we expand our horizons.
And perhaps we would do well to remember another ancient custom of Temple times. It was on Sukkot that 70 bulls were sacrificed in the Temple; one for every nation of the world. Our concern for the welfare of all nations is an ancient one. Despite the downplaying at times in our history of the universal message of Sukkot, it seems to me that we can ill afford to forget this message in our own time.
Neither in this country nor in Israel, nor indeed anywhere else, should we turn a blind eye to those who would suggest that their way is the only way, or ignore those who forget that all human life is holy, or humour those who refuse to accept that others have rights too.
May the One who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us, for all Israel, and, in the universal spirit of Sukkot, for all humanity.
Rabbi Janet Darley
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.