As we travel through the many observances of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, I have to admit that I find Sukkot equally uplifting to the Yamim Nora’im, the days of awe we have just journeyed through together. Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesah and Shavuot), when Jews made pilgrimages to The Temple.
One of the many names for Sukkot is Zeman Simhatenu, the Season of Our Joy. We come together over a week to fulfill the three specific joyful mitzvot associated with the festival: Live in a sukkah, gather the four species (lulav and etrog), and to rejoice in the festival. It is a wonderful time to invite family, friends, and community members to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.
Theodore H. Gaster, a scholar of comparative religion who taught at Columbia and Barnard, emphasized that Jewish observances can be viewed through the lenses of history, agriculture, and theology. Historically, Sukkot falls during the 40 years the Jewish people were wandering through the desert; we are taught that they lived in frail huts, sukkot, during that time. Agriculturally, Sukkot falls during the fall harvest. Theologically, living in sukkot stresses our dependency on God; the temporary nature of the sukkah reminds us that we don’t always have control of what goes on in our lives.
Hakhnasat Orhim, hospitality, is a recurring theme in Jewish literature and front and center for the Festival of Sukkot. Symbolically, we invite ushpizin, guests, into our sukkah to fulfill the mitzvah of hakhnasat Orhim. Traditionally we invite patriarchs and other biblical figures—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David—one each day of the festival. They are connected to the festival as they are each identified as wanderers or exiles in Jewish history—similar to the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years. More contemporary ushpizin lists include matriarchs and biblical women Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther.
Today, people usually only eat meals in the sukkah, but we are encouraged to study, read, and visit in the sukkah. There is a general principle that you should not suffer in the sukkah—if it is raining, one can go inside.
The temporary nature of the sukkah—a structure made with a removable and see-through covering (skhakh), gives us the opportunity to think about our dependency on God and on each other when it comes to the temporary nature of our lives. Those of us who are fortunate to have safe housing all year long are challenged to think of those who are not when we are sitting in a sukkah and it starts raining or the temperature gets uncomfortable (too cold or too hot, depending on where your sukkah is located geographically).
How can we take the themes of Sukkot and turn them into action items to help members of our community? Sukkot is a terrific time to pull together a food or clothing drive to donate to agencies serving those who are going through a challenging time in their lives or who are in a temporary state 365 days of the year. Host a Sukkot lunch or dinner with the requirement everyone needs to bring non-perishable food, toiletries, or clothing to donate. Another way to help those who are living in temporary situations is by making monetary donations to Jewish Family Service and other worthy organizations that provide basic needs.
As we celebrate the Festival of Sukkot, let’s challenge ourselves to help those who live in a state of need—making the joy of this festival one which has a positive impact in the lives of others throughout the year.