Like many aspects of Jewish life, the holiday of Sukkot has become much more widely observed by the Reform community than it was during my childhood.
Back then, as I recall, Sunday School students would make paper chains to hang in the temple sukkah, spend a bit of class time there waving the lulav and etrog, and then forget about it for the rest of the year. Almost no Reform Jews put up their own sukkot, and few fulfilled the commandment to eat at least one meal there.
Our contemporary rediscovery of the joys of Sukkot brings us back around to the understandings of the ancient Israelites when they fulfilled the commandment:
“The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.” (Exodus 34:26).
Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage holidays (along with Pesach and Shavuot), when our ancestors flocked to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem bringing offerings from their crops as sacrifices for God’s bounty. Sukkot was so important to our ancestors that it’s been suggested that the eight-day Chanukah holiday was, in fact, a belated celebration of Sukkot (plus Shmini Atzeret the next day ) once the Temple was restored. Likewise, the Pilgrims took to heart the commandments to recognize God’s role in providing for their needs in the New World:
“You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year” (Exodus 34:22) became the inspiration for that first Thanksgiving. But I think part of the reason the holiday has resonated over the course of history has to do with the poignancy of the sukkah itself. Sukkot(booths or huts) were the living quarters of our ancestors during harvest time, as well as their lodging during their wandering in the desert and on their pilgrimages to the Holy Temple.
“Mark, on the 15th day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord seven days…You shall live in booths all seven days…in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…” (Lev. 23:39-43).
But the sukkah is the perfect symbol for any fragile situation, and that, of course, is the history of the Jewish people. It could have been used throughout the ages to represent everything from our enslavement in Egypt to the Jewish plight during the Spanish Inquisition to life in the Warsaw Ghetto. (The sukkah’s fragility, in fact, begs the question of why there should be so many specific rules and regulations about constructing a temporary structure!)
Right now, in an economic environment in which so many of our fellow citizens are homeless and hungry, recognizing the abundance of God’s gifts in the temporary shelter of a sukkah offers us a current context for its significance. And might the sukkah not also speak to settlers in the West Bank?
So I’m glad that more Jews acknowledge and celebrate Sukkot—and I’m looking forward to shaking the lulav and etrog just the same!