JewishBoston.com: Judaism 101: Sukkot and the Opportunity for Change

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Most of our holidays commemorate specific events: Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, Hanukkah the rededication of the Temple following a military victory against the Greeks, Yom Ha’atzmaut the founding of the modern State of Israel, and so on. But Sukkot is different. Sukkot reminds us of the time between the Exodus and our ancestors’ entry into the promised land of Israel.

created at: 2010-09-21Jews remember this time of wandering in the dessert by building temporary dwellings, little booths called “sukkot” (singular: sukkah) from which the holiday draws its name. As with most Jewish practices, there’s wide variety in how people interpret what it means to “dwell” in the sukkah during the week. Some people eat big meals in their sukkot. Others will only eat in a sukkah and refrain from eating anything more than a snack outside of one. Some people will sleep in their sukkot as well, which can either be super fun or cold and miserable depending on your location and the vagaries of the weather.

Because the holiday is eight days long (including its concluding days of Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret), there are lots of other rituals and customs for Sukkot. There are the “four species,” aka the lulav and etrog, the former being a palm frond lashed together with a willow branch and a myrtle branch, the latter being the lemon-like fruit better known as a vodka flavor. Each day of the holiday (except Shabbat), these plants are held together and waved in all directions (north, south, east, west, up and down) during services in a rite that feels as old as religion itself. On the sixth day of the holiday (known as Hoshanah Rabbah), the willow branch is removed and beaten to a pulp in an act symbolizing beating our whatever last remnants of sin made it through Yom Kippur. 

Although we often commemorate the big moments in our lives, most of our days are spent between those points.  We are always wandering, but wandering for Jews doesn’t imply aimlessness. For our ancestors, wandering in the desert was a period of prepartion, a time for a people who had only known slavery to reshape themselves as free people. It was also a time for a people who had only known the rule of man to begin to understand what it meant to answer to the rule of God.

Sukkot encourages us to embrace the in-between-ness of our lives. The holiday itself feels pulled between ancient, pagan-like rituals involving waving plants around to ensure a good harvest and more modern forms of worship through prayer.  We are told on the one hand that this holiday should be a time of nothing but rejoicing and happiness (Deuteronomy 16:14), but on the other hand, we read the Book of Ecclesiastes (called Kohelet in Hebrew) which is pretty much the biggest downer in the entire Bible. And even though we’re told that the season of repentance ended on Yom Kippur, Sukkot encourages us to extend our introspection and self-improvement as far past deadline as we need.

G-dcast’s video for the holiday juxtaposes the sad, reflective old king from the Book of Ecclesiastes with the joyous celebration of Sukkot, capturing this tension in song:

There are lots of great Sukkot events happening in our community. Click here for a full list. And however you choose to rejoice in this holiday, have a chag sameach (happy holiday)!

*Sukkah photo by Flickr user RonAlmog

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