Sukkot: A Different Kind of Festival
The ancient festival of Sukkot has numerous elements to it. First is the Sukkah. We value our homes and the security of our little palaces, yet during Sukkot, we set up temporary accommodation in which we are expected to eat, sleep, and live for a week just as the weather in the Northern Hemisphere begins to turn cold and wet.
This is because some three and a half thousand years ago, our forefathers lived in the Sinai Desert, and used temporary huts for shade according to one version of our history. In another version, the Sukkah symbolizes the protection God extended over us then and continues to do so now. It is an example of the dichotomy between religion as a functional system as well as a spiritual one.
The Sukkah started life as a simple watchman’s outpost in the fields during harvest time, to guard the crops against humans and animals. What was once a rickety shack or hut thrown together with a canopy of branches and leaves, has now been transformed by affluence into a luxurious prefabricated enclosure, often with electronically operated retractable roofs that respond to a drop of rain. And as the structures have grown sturdier, so too has the plethora of detailed laws and refinements to deal with them.
It is not just the Sukkah that has been transformed. We now pay astronomical sums for the lemon-like Etrog, a palm branch, willows, and the myrtle leaves that we shake at home and in our synagogues at pre-determined moments in the day.
Ever since the Babylonian Exile, there was a split between Jews who refused to interpret and modify Torah law to suit different circumstances, and those who stuck relentlessly to the literality of the text. The literalists agreed to build huts for the festival. But they understood the text of the Torah that talks about the Four Plants, to mean that they were supposed to make up the roof, the Schach of the Sukkah, not to be taken separately to be shaken in the Temple or synagogue.
Then there is a layer of custom, initiated by the prophets associated with rain on the festival. Simchat Beit HaShoeva, started as a procession around the Well House in the Temple, asking for the rains to come. It continues to this day with lively dancing and singing each night in Orthodox enclaves during the intermediary days of Sukkot. The sixth day, Hoshana Rabba, the last intermediary day, still focuses on rain. We beat willow branches as if to squeeze out the last drop of precious liquid from them. Today, the world at large is so preoccupied with rain, nature, and climate. Yet this has been part of Judaism for centuries.
On the last day, there is a separate festival to round it all off — Shmini Atzeret — the gathering of the Eighth Day, which in Israel combines with Simchat Torah to celebrate the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. In the Diaspora, Simchat Torah is the following day. We sing, we dance, and make merry over our holy text.
Over the years, the festival of Sukkot has gathered new facets, new customs, and new significance. Little stays still in Judaism, though many people seem to think otherwise. It is just that change develops in a slow, conservative process of consensus as well as local custom.
Like Sukkot itself, our rituals remind us of the changing seasons and times, and bring us into contact with touches, smells, and experiences that we normally take for granted. They emphasize the natural world (and our obligations to be caring custodians of it), as well as the spiritual. They meet our need to put ourselves in situations where we might sense things of a more ethereal nature. Above all, they interlink social morality and responsibility with daily rituals, so that we are constantly reminded of our values and goals.
The fact that some humans are impervious in their abandonment of these traditions, or that others refuse to link ritual to their greater values, does not detract from the purpose or from the benefits that such a system offers. It is this loyalty to our traditions that has helped us survive both as a people and a way of life. Chag Sameach.
The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.