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The openness of the Sukkah

“And the Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day on this seventh month there shall be a Feast of Booths to the Eternal One to last seven days’” (Leviticus 23:33).

Sukkot is everything Yom Kippur is not: light, upbeat, outdoors, casual and colorful. Yom Kippur – by design – is laden with introspection, stirring music, the weight of prayer and longing. Following such an emotional experience, we need Sukkot. It comes just in time, exactly four days after Yom Kippur ends.

An important part of the holiday has us visit the sukkah and gaze up at the vastness of the sky. We feel the size of the world and are reminded of our relative smallness within it. To gaze at a sprawling night sky is to be reminded of how finite our lives are when compared to the stretching cosmos. We look up and are reminded too that there is indeed beauty and mystery in our massive world, facts easily forgotten these days as the news comes at us quickly and current events are often so troubling.

For me, the openness of the sukkah is also a perpetual lesson in welcoming. We are commanded throughout the Torah to welcome the stranger as we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know what it feels like to be an outsider. One of the beautiful traditions associated with the sukkah is to welcome visitors, thus opening your space to others. There is a symbolic reading of this teaching as well: How can we be more present for the people in our lives who need us? How can we open ourselves up to the pain of others, their cry, their heartache? Can we lift up the walls to welcome them and to hear them? Such questions transcend Sukkot and speak to our lives as Jews throughout the year.

Another reason we build the sukkah is to remember the temporary huts that our ancestors lived in during their trek through the wilderness. Thus the sukkah connects us to our past in important ways. When we visit the sukkah we recall the hardships endured by our biblical ancestors and the many sacrifices they made in order to live a free Jewish life. We think of Moses, Aaron and Miriam and the twelve tribes journeying together to the Promised Land. We can close our eyes and feel ourselves transported back in time, the desert sand in our toes, Egyptian servitude just barely behind us. We recall that we are linked to them, even now, even us.

We could argue here that the sukkah reminds us as well of our more immediate ancestors, those grandparents and great-grandparents whose Jewish lives were highly fragile in eastern Europe or Russia. There was often great danger in being Jewish and living a Jewish life. We remember their journeys, their sadness, their heroic efforts to simply live. They didn’t know if they’d make it. They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring.

We feel some of that fragility now too. WE live in a different time and place, yes, and yet we know that life can be so very fragile. We have all confronted loss and illness and questions that can hardly be answered. We have all seen up close what it means to be faced with life’s greatest of challenges. During this special season and this special holiday, I hope that we can all find joy in community, tradition and the stirring words of our people.