For many people, myself included, Sukkot is a favorite among Jewish holidays. Maybe it’s the lovely autumn time of year. Maybe it’s that so much of the holiday entails being outdoors. Maybe it’s building the sukkah or shaking the lulav. I believe there is a combination of factors that makes Sukkot the right holiday at the right time with the right message and the right energy.
Among the names of this holiday is Z’man Simchateinu, or the time of our rejoicing. This perhaps best encapsulates the spirit of Sukkot as a time of joy, unity, abundance and thanksgiving.
First, consider the timing of Sukkot. We’ve just finished a slog of holidays, culminating in a long and difficult day of self-denial and repentance. The high holiday season is indeed a marathon for Jews. From before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, we are preoccupied with our spiritual healing and wellbeing. We try to wash away our sins and become better, ethically and spiritually, to earn a favorable judgment for the coming year. In the process of trying to earn a better judgment from God, something pretty great happens. In our course of self-reflection and improvement, we forgive those who wronged us and ask them to return the favor. The result is a very positive phenomenon of making our entire community a more hospitable place. In focusing on ourselves, we’ve helped restore spiritual health and brotherhood of our entire community to start the year on the right foot. Then comes Sukkot. And what better time to celebrate than when we have made peace with ourselves and our neighbors?
Now consider this in the context of the double meaning of Sukkot, which falls just days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot is a holiday with two important Biblical foundations. The first is to commemorate the Israelite journey through the wilderness for 40 years under the close protection and sustenance of God. As such, we are commanded to eat and live in temporary huts, Sukkot, to recall how God provided for us. Jewish tradition holds that the time in the wilderness was a time spent in a divine presence and was a fundamentally spiritual time for the Jewish People, their physical needs met as God provided them with shelter and manna to eat. Sukkot is the holiday in which Jews try to tap into that divine period in Jewish history by reenacting the experience. In fact, just by being in the Sukkah fulfills the core commandment of the holiday and is unique in that we perform it with every part of our body. Yet whether your sukkah is a grand structure or made of a few planks, all Jews fulfill the mitzvah the same way.
Now fast forward to the time of the Holy Jewish Temple in ancient Israel. Sukkot was a time of great joy and fulfilment. One of its names is Chag HaAsif, the Festival of Ingathering, as Fall is the time of year when the harvest is complete and storehouses of food are full. Jews were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during this time and made sacrificial offerings from their harvest. Again, Sukkot is a time of sustenance.
Let’s check off the boxes so far. We have our recent spiritual cleansing, forgiveness, and we’re supposed to have our grain silos full (either literally of perhaps metaphorically).
Let’s also look at one of the other core mitzvahs, or commandments, for the Sukkot holiday. Jews are commanded to take four species of plants, a date palm frond (lulav), myrtle branches (hadass), willow branches (aravah), and a citron (Etrog). The most commonly accepted symbolism of the Four Species, commonly referred to as “lulav and etrog,” is that we unite the four kinds of Jews, represented by the combination of taste (Torah) and scent (deeds) of each plant. There are those who study Torah but do not perform deeds (lulav), those who have deeds but no Torah (hadass), those who have neither Torah nor deeds (aravah), and those who study Torah and perform deeds (etrog). Because all four species are needed to fulfill the mitzvah, the message is clear that all Jews are equally important and should strive for unity as one body.
Sukkot simply has so many positive elements! It falls just on the heels of a time of great spiritual and community improvement, so we can assuage that concern for the moment. The fall harvest has ended and we are enjoying the fruits of our labor, so no need to worry about sustenance. What’s left is an opportunity to strip away material distractions and try to get closer to our roots – together. And that is perhaps the key to the popularity of Sukkot – community and unity. Whether observant or secular, learned or not, all Jews are equal under the sukkah, as we were 3,300 years ago in the desert and as we are now before God. On Sukkot, each Jew has the opportunity to reach back in time and tap into the spiritual and communal source of Judaism. Perhaps it is this great spiritual arc that makes it so appealing to so many. I like to think it is the perfect combination of all these elements.
A lulav, hadass, and aravah charm for Sukkot...