The many meanings of Sukkot
I love the holiday of Sukkot, and for many reasons. I feel it is a holiday with many meanings, and many lovely paradoxes. I love how Sukkot encourages us to spend more time in the outdoors, and yet how it encloses us within walls and a roof, even as we are exposed to the elements at the same time. I love how it reinforces our human ingenuity in building structures, and yet reminds us how fragile and impermanent these structures really are. I love its inherent earthy-ness, how it connects us to trees and fruits through the lulav and etrog, and also connects us to the heavenly spheres, as we stare at the moon and stars through the roof. As we shake the lulav in the 6 directions, we orient ourselves to our place in the universe, and G-d’s presence everywhere and in all things.
Though a Sukkah exists on the material realm as a physical dwelling, there is also an element of Sukkot that transcends both time and space. As autumn leaves change color and fall to the ground, we are confronted with the stark realities of time and change. We read from Kohelet, who reminds us that, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted. . . “ When we sit in a sukkah we mark the changing of the seasons and the passage of time. By marking time in this way, we participate in rituals which bring us both back in history and forward into the future.
Sukkot is a remembrance of the Jewish people’s wandering through the desert after having been freed from slavery. During this period, we were a people without a homeland, wholly dependent on divine sustenance for our very survival. Yet Sukkot is also a remembrance of the Temple period, when the Jewish people were settled and prosperous in Eretz Yisrael. Having gathered in the harvest of the land, Sukkot was a pilgrimage holiday to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer thanks. There seems here something of an internal paradox of Sukkot’s meanings; it is both a remembrance of times of homelessness as well as times of settled prosperity. Add to this a third dimension of Sukkot’s symbolism, that of the future Messianic era when the whole world will be wrapped in the great Sukkah of the Leviathan, and the Sukkah becomes a place outside of our usual conceptions of the time-space continuum. Also consider that in addition to inviting friends, family, strangers and other guests into the Sukkah, we make special invitations and set chairs for our ancestors in the Ushpizin blessings, where we invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David in to dwell in the Sukkah with us. How outside of our usual paradigm concerning the nature of the time-space continuum indeed!
In short, I am entranced by this holiday with its myriad meanings and rituals. From shaking tree branches and smelling the wonderful fragrance of the etrog to sitting outside sharing meals with both old friends and people you just met, Sukkot is a holiday that gives me great joy. Despite the paradoxes of the holiday, or perhaps because of them, Sukkot is a time of great rejoicing. In our liturgy, Sukkot is referred to as Chag HaSukkot, zeman simchateinu, the Festival of Sukkot, the season of our joy. For in a world filled with seeming paradox, joy resides in recognizing the unity of all things. Thus we feel happiness and joy when we engage in Sukkot mitzvot, stepping outside the usual constraints of time and space into an other-worldly dimension which hints at the Messianic future of the world-to-come. Chag Sukkot Sameach!