Someone once said, “Being Jewish is about being in love with Sukkot”. This is a truer statement than most 21st century Jews recognize as our Sages teach that the source of all of the commandments can be found in this powerful and joyous holiday. It is so important that it is mentioned in the Bible more than any other holiday, and is often just referred to as “the holiday”. It is also the one holiday where we are commanded to be happy! (Deut. 16:15)
For a week we are commanded to dwell in a Sukkah, a temporary structure built with palm fronds (Lev. 23:42). We eat our meals, study, and even sleep in the Sukkah. Jews are commanded to perform rituals with an etrog (a citron, similar to a lemon) and lulav (palm spine, willow, and myrtle leaves) known collectively as “the Four Species” (Lev. 23:40). We welcome in our ancestors and invite guests (called “Ushpizin”), and it is a holiday that creates lifelong memories of love, joy, and family…especially for children who are blessed to observe this holiday.
On an historical level, this holiday commemorates the wandering of our ancestors in the desert and their dependence on God’s support. On a simple theological level, the holiday reminds us of the temporal quality of the physical world, the importance of our spirituality, and how we need to rely on God’s permanence and graciousness. But it is so, so much more than that.
When we dwell on the first night in the temporary booth with palm fronds as a ceiling and decorated with fruits and flowers, we are surrounded with the beauty of nature. But as the week goes on, we experience the cycle of life. The fronds dry out, the flowers wilt, the fruit starts to rot (or be eaten by critters if we live around them). As the spiritual intensity increases each day while the physical aspects deteriorate, the truth of the impermanence of the physical world becomes more clear. Everything always depends on God, but sheltered all year by our physical comforts we all too often forget this truth. In the Sukkah, this truth becomes evident.
In the traditional prayers recited during the holiday, it explicitly states that “all 613 commandments are dependent” on the observance of Sukkot. A deep mystical secret, this comes from an understanding and exploration of how all of the 613 commandments can be traced to a deeper understanding of the cycles of life, nature, and the integration of the physical and spiritual worlds into one integrated experience of spirituality in physical form.
Sukkot is the time of true love. On Passover, the Jewish people become betrothed to God. On Shavuot, we become married to God with the ketubah of the Ten Commandments and Torah. We get a honeymoon period with God between Shavuot and the 17th of Tammuz, when we break that marital covenant with the sin of the golden calf. But God forgives us and gives us another set of the Ten Commandments as a ketubah on Yom Kippur (this is based in the calendar as described in Torah). This means that Sukkot, which follows immediately after Yom Kippur is a “second honeymoon” between us and God…a time of joy and love!
The depth of the holiday is so great that even with years of study and practice, each yearly observance of Sukkot brings more insights, magic, and wonder. The great mystic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) often expressed his passion for learning in nature, and had many teachings on the power and importance of this holiday. It is worth noting just a few of them as we prepare for the upcoming Festival.
Rebbe Nachman taught that it is through Sukkot that we can experience Divine wisdom in such a way as to taste the World to Come. It is a gift of enlightenment based not on an individual’s own efforts, but “simply through God’s beneficence”. He teaches that observance of the holiday brings purity of heart, and is a segula (remedy) in order to have children. (There is an old folk custom that if a couple is having challenges getting pregnant, they should put an etrog under their pillow.) Rebbe Nachman also teaches that “intense prayer, the Land of Israel, and the mitzvah of Succah are in essence one concept”. He has many, many more teachings, but my favorite is “From the Succah comes Torah. Therefore when we enter the Succah we become infused with Torah” (266). The holiday of Sukkot awakens our souls and imbues us with the wisdom, teachings, and love of Torah.
There are a tremendous amount more insights that come through the observance of Sukkot, but the most important point is to just do it. Just start observing this powerful holiday by being a guest at someone’s Sukkah one night (our synagogue is having events in the Sukkah every night); building your own Sukkah or purchasing a pre-fabricated Sukkah; observing the ritual of waving the lulav and etrog; or at least by taking some time in nature and experiencing God’s presence. I have often said that Sukkot is like vanilla ice cream. I can describe how delicious it is, but until you personally experience it you will never fully appreciate how terrific it is.
I look forward to sharing a meal or event with you in our community Sukkah, and if you would like to just come over and wave the lulav, please email me to schedule a time.
Chag Sameach! May this joyous holiday bring us all good health, prosperity, joy, fun, wisdom, love, and peace!
Rabbi Michael Barclay
September 18th, 2021
13th of Tishrei, 5782