This article will reach you during the festival of Sukkot, our annual celebration of the Biblical commandment: You shall rejoice, You shall be exceedingly joyous. (Deut. 16:14-15).
Those familiar with our holiday cycle know that we have just completed our New Year and our Day of Atonement. We acknowledged that God is Sovereign with Rosh Hashanah, and spiritually purified by the prayers and responses of Yom Kippur, we are now free to enjoy the blessing of freedom. We believe that we have been forgiven, we believe that the world has been redeemed, and we believe that freedom is real — how can we not be joyful?
The sukkah is like a huppah at a wedding. As a huppah shows that the couple should not rely on a strong outside structure to keep them together but on the strength of their love and commitment to each other, so the sukkah represents that our structures are frail and temporary and we should rely instead on our faith to protect and preserve us. It may seem a ridiculous claim, but anyone who lived through Andrew, or is battling the wildfires in the west, knows that Nature itself decides how, where, and when the rain will fall as well as the futility of relying on man-made structures that could withstand the forces of Nature.
At the same time we could not mentally or spiritually endure the constant thought that we could be annihilated at any moment, even while intellectually understanding that it is true (think the Phuket tsunami, Skylab, or the Andrea Gail). So we live in our houses and go about our lives, ghosting the idea of disaster.
On Sukkot, we allow the ghost to come to life. We consciously and constructively admit that ultimately we have no control over our environment, and with humility and purpose we build a temporary dwelling to acknowledge that the only reason Nature hasn’t completely revolted us out is that it has chosen not to. (Yet.) The acknowledgment is that we are permitted in the world, and not that we are entitled to the world. And further, we acknowledge that we are part of the world, just as all the other myriad and endless people, creatures, flora and fauna that we share space with. We share with all life the experience of being created.
So we put together our huts, sometimes elaborately decorated with tapestries, posters, and battery-powered lights and delight in the world that was given to us with grace and lovingkindness.
The Sages taught: A man is obligated to gladden his children and the members of his household on a Festival, as it is stated: “And you shall rejoice on your Festival, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow that are within your gates,” (Deuteronomy 16:14). Rabbi Yehuda says: One should enable each member of his household to rejoice with an item that pleases them. (BT Pesachim 109a.)
One main theme of the holiday is celebrating “ushpizin,” or guests. The inspiration comes from Abraham, who is associated with the trait of chesed/grace, and who would wait outside his tent in the chance that a wayfarer might need assistance. The custom is to invite friends and neighbors to share a meal in the sukkah. In addition to the guests who are physically here, we can also invite guests who can only continue to live in our hearts and minds, or those in our imagination. Could you imagine Abraham and Sarah in your sukkah, or the prophet warrior Devorah, or Samson, or Isaiah? How might your spirit be strengthened by their virtual presence? What wisdom might be shared? It is also customary to invite the spirit of our beloved dead, a parent or a partner. There are no restrictions on who may be invited.
One way to glean joy is to follow the custom of providing the same amount or value of the food you would have given these supernal guests to a local food bank or a more direct donation. Since we are encouraged to invite such guests on each of the seven days of the holiday, donations can get a nice bump at this time. It is a beautiful way of connecting with the world, effectively saying “as I enjoy the harvest, so should others enjoy the harvest.”
The evening meal begins with the invitation: Sit, sit, [you] lofty guests; sit, sit [you] holy guests; sit, sit [you] guests of faith. The prayer continues with the plea that all lofty and exalted guests come and take their place in the sukkah. This year, clearly, the invitations will have to be different. We’ll be relying much more on the visits from supernal guests, the ones who’ve always remained with us even after they left, the One who was always there.
Sit With Me / Not Alone
The safest place in times of COVID:
outdoors, where fresh air carries
viral particles away. Here
beneath this ragged sketch of roof
air circulates freely. I can breathe.
The safest companion in times of COVID:
Myself. Or you, Holy One:
dressed for the season in worn jeans
and flannel shirt, and maybe flip-flops
reluctant to let summer end.
Sit with me beneath the cornstalks, God.
Sing along with my solitary kiddush.
Hold my hand.
if I remember you're here with me
I am not alone.
(Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, in Prayers/Poems for Sukkot in Times of COVID-19.)
This is perhaps the message of Sukkot, that we are not alone. Even before COVID, the world was fragile and dangerous. Therefore we are urged, year after year, to build solid relationships that can withstand the vicissitudes of time and the uncertainty of nature. It may be quaint or naïve, but I believe the only true security we have in this life are our relationships and the bonds of love and loving-kindness that connect us.
Have a Happy Sukkot!