Sukkot matters (1): Finding meaning in the sukkah

Sukkot is a wonderful opportunity to reach back into our Jewish tradition, drawing upon ancient wisdom, at the same time as making new meanings for ourselves and contributing to the evolution of a living Judaism. I’m not going to give an exhaustive account of every detail, or of every ‘official’ version of the meanings of Sukkot, but would like to share what it means for me, personally, this year.

Originally the sukkah was a booth / hut which Jews and non-Jews built in their fields at harvest time. It gave them shelter from the fierce sun, and enabled them to maximise the time they could spend working outdoors. It has been the Jewish way for many, many centuries to attach creative, educative and spiritual meanings to ordinary activities. We can bring a heightened awareness to what we experience and do; to sanctify, make holy or bless something is to see the spark and hand of God within it.

For me, the sukkah represents four things. First, we celebrate and give thanks for the natural world, and the bounty we receive from it when we are good stewards of it. It is a reminder that must relate wisely and in partnership with the planet and web of life.

Second, the sukkah has an open door, and we welcome ushipizin (Aramaic for ‘visitors’). Maimonides the 12th century Jewish philosopher taught: “…one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eat and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered soul—this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly . . .” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals 6:18) Not all our visitors will be poor, but I take the lesson that I am spiritually poorer if I cannot find it in my heart to welcome others, especially those I find difficult to relate to. Tradition teaches us to meditate over the 7 days on what we can learn from the lives and spirit of each of our 7 patriarch shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. Kabbalists taught that these represented the 7 lowest of the 10 attributes on the Tree of Life: Abraham chesed/abundant loving-kindness; Isaac gevurah/discipline; Jacob tiferet/harmony; Moses netzach/endurance; Aaron hod/humility; Joseph yesod/connection; David malchut/receptiveness. Innovating Judaism, we can also invite the matriarchs into our sukkah concsciousness – Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther.

Third, the sukkah gives me a chance to strengthen the bonds of love and community, by slowing down, sharing food, and hanging out with people. Yes, we do that on Shabbat as well, but this is a nice long period where we are meant to do nothing else. Sukkot is sometimes called z’man simchateinu, the ‘season of our rejoicing’ – we give thanks for the bounty of Creation, for being to draw in the spiritual energy of our patriarchs and matriarchs into our homes, and for being able to chill with friends old and new.

Fourth, given the impermanence and openness of its structure, the sukkah reminds me of my own fragility. I am metaphorically open to the elements of what life might throw at me. Ultimately, I have no true refuge other than God, and the relationship that I forge with God. This is a useful reminder just after Yom Kippur, when we have done a huge spiritual cleansing and atoning, and might easily fall into the trap of thinking that we can sit back for a while and rest on what we imagine to be our achievements.

This post: 1. Making meaning in the sukkah

NEXT 2. Finding meaning in the Four Species

NEXT 3. Finding meaning in shaking the lulav

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