By Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy
Our favorite Jewish holidays are usually the ones that fit nicely with our current thinking and behavior patterns. Yom Kippur is a time for serious introspection and soul-searching. Hanukkah is a time to celebrate religious freedom, minority rights, and multi-culturalism. Passover is a time to rejoice in redemption from tyranny and slavery. Purim is a joyous release of inhibitions and energies embedded in a serious message about anti-Semitism. These are usually our favorite holidays. They are easy to explain to outsiders and filled with the right messages for ourselves and our children.
Sukkot, on the other hand, is a real challenge. It comes right after the High Holidays, when we’ve been so inundated with Jewish substance that some of us feel the need to come up for a breath of secular air. Build a hut in our backyard? Take another day off from work or school? Can’t it wait until next month—at least until the World Series is over?
But of course harvests do not wait. And since they don’t, and we are out of breath, many of us celebrate Sukkot quite perfunctorily, enjoying the special decorations and fragrances in the synagogue, but otherwise taking little notice of what seems like a High Holiday afterthought. Simchat Torah revives our spirits once again, but Sukkot has passed us by, and if we are left with anything, it is likely the sense that Jews knew about Thanksgiving long before the Pilgrims.
And yet Sukkot, if we take a few minutes to contemplate it, is really a challenge in a much more profound way. Although it is no longer celebrated as He-chag, the holiday par excellence that it was in Biblical times, it has the potential to confront us with demands even more difficult than fasting on Yom Kippur, asking forgiveness, eating matzah for seven days, or being Jewish in December.
I believe there are three central theological messages of the holiday, and all of them make me nervous.
The first is that nature and the outside world—the smells, sounds, and sights of the universe—are as central to Judaism as anything that goes on inside our heads.
Unlike the late Rabbi Lipman, may he rest in peace, who thrived in the fields as well as in the study halls, I am an inside person. When I go outside, I want to be comfortable. I avoid tents, insects, and bad weather whenever possible.
Along comes this holiday that asks me to eat outside (unless it rains so hard that my soup loses its taste), hammer nails, harvest bamboo for the scach (the covering of the Sukkah), and say prayers over a palm branch, willow, or myrtle. I can barely differentiate between a rose and a tulip. It asks me to praise God daily for agricultural bounties which I personally never harvest, except when I venture out to Larriland Orchards to pick apples every fall.
Yet what I remember from my childhood experience of Sukkot is exactly that—the physicality of it, the smell of the spilled wine mixing with the New England foliage in my congregational sukkah, the waving of the lulav and the bright lemon yellow etrog. Once again, I am wrenched out of the cerebral self-searching of Yom Kippur and brought back to the earth, where I am reminded of nature, God’s creation of the physical world, and the need to bless and take care of it.
Without the challenge of Sukkot every year, the bamboo in my backyard would remain nothing but a fast growing nuisance, a part of that natural world too messy, uncertain, and uncontrolled to pay much attention to.
The second message of Sukkot may be even harder, especially for those of you who are less naturo-phobic than me. This message tells us that possessions mean nothing, that real estate is a sham, that the only reliable dwelling-place is a rickety hut in one’s backyard.
There is a wonderful children’s book called The Big Sukkah that tells the story of a poor family that could never invite its relatives over for a holiday meal because there was not enough room in their home. However, one Sukkot, the father realized that their backyard was bigger than their home, and so their sukkah, built quickly from borrowed materials, was the largest one in the family. From then on, every year, the poor family hosted all their relatives in the big sukkah.
Like the symbolism of the plain pine box, but at a happier time, Sukkot reminds us of the absolute equality of rich and poor. Everyone’s soup gets rained on. Everyone’s willow dies by the fifth, sixth, or seventh day. Everyone’s sukkah is fragile, temporary, and open to the winds and storms. It is a message we would rather not hear—we in our protected, well-sheltered edifices—but it is an inescapable message, and Sukkot, this overlooked holiday, is its Jewish vehicle.
The third message of Sukkot is that in addition to the natural world’s centrality, and the human being’s ultimate vulnerability, the Jewish focal point is the land of Israel. The harvest we honor is a Middle Eastern one. The rains we pray for on Shemini Azeret are based on the timing of the rainy season’s commencement in Israel, not here. When it comes to Sukkot, we’re in the wrong place. Yom Kippur is so universal we know we can be anywhere, but Sukkot is about the real earth, real bodies, and a real land.
One of the things I found most striking when I lived in Israel was that everyone built a sukkah, even the jaded, secular Israelis. It was part of the general cultural ambience. In Kensington, Maryland, where I now build my sukkah, building one is a neighborhood phenomenon.
But perhaps these three messages are intentionally provocative. We sink to the depths on Yom Kippur, but emerge smugly selfrighteous. We’ve done it again. We’ve fasted. God has forgiven us. We’re okay for another year.
But before too many days go by, Sukkot assaults us with these three messages:
You people of books, writings, and fax machines, remember the earth and nature. Remember to protect your environment. Remember how easily it disintegrates.
You people of possessions, remember that all is dust. Remember your comfort the rest of the year. Take care of the comfort and basic needs of others.
You people of the diaspora, remember a land that was once your real home and will always be your spiritual home. Keep well attuned to its seasonal rhythms and agricultural melodies. It too is fragile, vulnerable, and subject to the storms of history, politics, and shifting alliances.
Sukkot, after all, reminds us that, as Jews, we’re always a little bit out of sync. Just before the High Holidays one year, a young mother asked me, “Rabbi, is it really so wrong to send my son to school on Rosh Hashanah? He’s too little to really know what the holiday means, and I don’t want him to be out of sync with the rest of his classmates.” Part of my answer was, “One of the points of Judaism is to be a little out of sync.” Sukkot is our best Jewish reminder of this quintessential Jewish characteristic, a challenge to smugness, a provocation to passivity. So do smell the fragrances of the sukkah this year, do touch its fragile walls, do remember a land where the rainy season has not yet begun. Don’t let Sukkot go by again. It has too much to teach about life, about ourselves, and about what being Jewish really means.
To celebrate Sukkot with your community, find your Federation.