By Cantor Ellen Sussman
Temple Shirat Shalom
We have just experienced the most intense period of the Jewish calendar, the High Holy Days. It is a time of introspective, communal evaluation and soul searching.
Immediately following Yom Kippur, the 10 Days of Repentance, comes a season of joy and thanksgiving, Sukkot. In our t’fillah, the Sukkot festival is referred to as chag HaSukkot hazeh, z’man simchateinu, the holiday of Sukkot, our season of joy. After Yom Kippur ends, we are enjoined to begin the building of our sukkah that very night. After spending days inside our synagogues worshipping, what a relief it is to spend seven days outdoors eating in our sukkahs surrounded by nature.
I love Sukkot because it brings to mind many wonderful memories. I remember I started building my own sukkah when I entered seminary. It was very exciting and hard to do in a little apartment in New York City. Then I married, had children and purchased my own home. That’s when I got my father, of blessed memory, to schlepp from Long Island to Old Bridge, New Jersey, to help my husband build the sukkah. He came for many years. I remember the parties we hosted, the fun we had with our children and their friends decorating and eating in the sukkah. When we moved to Allentown, I helped institute a new synagogue event, sukkah hopping, where we went to different congregants’ homes where a sukkah had been built. It was a fantastic sight to see them all.
The holiday of Sukkot is mentioned in our Torah, but much of the ritual comes from the Rabbinic Age. Leviticus (23:40-43) states,
“On the first day you shall take the fruit of the goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time throughout the ages. You shall live in the booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall dwell in the booths. In order that future generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.”
The beginning of this quote mentions the lulav and the etrog, the other important symbol of Sukkot. The tradition understands “the fruit of the goodly tree” to be the etrog, “the branches of the palm” to be the lulav, “boughs of leafy trees” to be the myrtle and “willows of the brook” to be the willow. We are to take all these plants from nature and in a prescribed way wave them in all directions. My favorite explanation for this is to say that God the Creator of the Universe, the architect of our world, and the source for our food and beautiful plants is everywhere in all directions.
Sukkot is a very rich and complex holiday with many rituals and beautiful symbols. In our community we have many opportunities to celebrate this holiday. I encourage everyone to do it; it is worth the effort.
Sukkot is our holiday of thanksgiving. Being in the sukkah fulfilling the ritual of shaking the lulav and the etrog is to remind us of all that we should be grateful for — the gift of life, the gift of our tables filled with food and the gift of our beautiful world. At this holiday season let us all take the time to offer thanks to our God.