JEWS HAVE JUST gone through a drastic transition from one of the most solemn holidays in our year, Yom Kippur, to Sukkot, one of the most joyous. Sukkot is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred to in Jewish prayer and literature as the “Season of our Rejoicing.”
As I write this, we are in the middle of this seven-day holiday, where we put up a sukkah or booth (“You shall dwell in booths for seven days.” Leviticus 23), a fragile structure that has a roof and sides covered with branches and leaves. We decorate it with flowers, fruits and vegetables from the summer’s harvest. We eat in the sukkah throughout the week, and some even sleep in it.
There is a tradition that each night we invite Ushpizin, guests, who are our Jewish ancestors to share the sukkah with us. Among the guests we invite are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. Two are highlighted each night for the qualities they exemplify.
For example, we call upon Abraham’s quality of loving kindness and Isaac’s strength, Sarah’s faith and Rachel’s compassion. It is said that the Ushpizin leave their heavenly homes and reside with us spiritually in our sukkah, and that the Shekhinah, the feminine presence of God, spreads a “sukkah of peace” over us.
An important ritual performed under the sukkah is shaking the lulav, consisting of a palm branch, myrtle, willow and an etrog, a lemon-like fruit. Each item represents a part of our body, reminding us of how we should conduct our lives. The palm reflects the uprightness of our spine, the myrtle, our eyes and enlightenment, the willow, our lips and holy speech, and the etrog, our heart, the place of understanding and wisdom. We shake the lulav in all directions, emphasizing the omnipresence of the Divine.
The fragility of the sukkah teaches us about our vulnerability by exposing us to the elements and reminding us of those who have no safe, dry place to live. It must be built so one can see the stars through the roof, thus giving no protection from the rain and wind.
As we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, and enjoy the food we are fortunate enough to have, we are obligated to remember those who have little.
Rabbi David Teutsch points out that “Sukkot confronts us with the dual message of fragility and bounty. Don’t take bounty for granted, and allow the awareness of fragility to motivate us to take care of those who need our help.”
Experiencing the fragility of the sukkah teaches us that our warm, sturdy homes and access to an abundance of food can be suddenly disrupted with sickness and death, hurricanes, flooding, winter storms, earthquakes, wildfires and the violence of world conflicts.
Trying to eat a meal while bundled up sitting in a sukkah, with rain dripping on us through the roof, is an awakening experience. Most of us choose not to spend the night in those conditions, since we have the choice to go inside to our warm beds, but we realize that many simply do not have that choice.
Rabbi Noa Kushner reminds us “Right after Yom Kippur, when we have taken our souls down to the studs and have looked squarely in the face of our flaws, Sukkot arrives … at the very time we’d like to hide out in our warm homes. Our protection is inextricably tied to the protection of others. The kind of security we seek will only come once we see ourselves as part of a larger whole, once we witness and respond to the needs of those outside our locked doors and beyond our circle of immediate concern.”
The cold and rain of winter will soon arrive and we must remember all those who have no food or shelter, not just those we deem “worthy.”
We must see everyone as a child of God, containing a divine spark and ensure that we reach out to all in need.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.