If you’re reading this in the days after Yom Kippur, congratulations! You made it through the High Holidays, the Days of Awe, and its finale, the Day of Judgment. I hope your fasts were easy, your self-assessments and repentance meaningful, and that you are on track for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year of 5783.
Now, it’s time for some Jewish fun, for getting out of the pews, off the couch, into the natural world. It’s time for Sukkot—the fall harvest festival, the time for celebrating the life-giving abundance of the natural world, the crops on which our very existence depends.
The eight-day festival starting Sunday evening (October 9) lets us switch gears, stepping out of our post-agricultural, post-industrial world and into the realm of land, sky, and wind.
Oh, did I mention rain? And cold? Well, Sukkot is a time nature reminds us we’re living in North America—not Israel. Because our new Hebrew year of 5783 follows a leap year, Sukkot is closer to Halloween than Labor Day. And we’re more likely to have bouts of chilly rain on our sukkahs at a time our Israelis siblings still enjoy warm, dry weather.
There’s the irony: We’re told to “live” (eat, sleep) outdoors in shelters, or sukkot, while nature seems to want to chase us back inside, to seek “shelter” back in our homes.
Now Jewish tradition can be demanding but isn’t unbending. Moses tells the Israelites (Leviticus 23:42) the Holy One wants them to “dwell in sukkot for seven days.”
The Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law, says: “If it rains, one is exempt from staying in the sukkah … With regard to sleep, even a slight rain causes discomfort, and one is permitted to leave the sukkah.” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 135:9-10). In other words, the rabbis cut us some slack in how we observe Sukkot here on the East Coast.
But as I see it, there’s an upside to living in the Garden State when it comes to connecting with agriculture— our ancestors’ main occupation but something that is foreign to most of us. It’s an opportunity to experience the holy and the divine that is part of our food system— including the command to help the hungry. Here’s a three-point plan for a fun, happy and holy Sukkot here in South Jersey:
• Get out: If you have a sukkah, and if you’re the camping kind, bring your air mattresses and three-season sleeping bags into your sukkah—at least once. Kids can have a blast and earn bragging rights at school.
• Go back … to the farm: There are dozens of pick-your-own orchards, pumpkin patches, petting farms and cider mills within an hour of the Cherry Hill area. Pick up some corn stalks to decorate your home or sukkah. Experience where our food comes from.
• Give back: Food insecurity is a sad reality, even in our prosperous region. Jewish outlets for food justice include our Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Family Assistance Program and national Jewish groups like Mazon. We can also support interfaith partners like Cathedral Kitchen in Camden and Prince of Peace Food Pantry in Marlton, which together supply 200,000 meals annually to needy South Jerseyans.
As we reconnect with the food system—and as we help the needy—may we merit the blessing we ask of the Holy One in our evening prayers: “Spread over us the sukkah of your peace.”
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