Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thoughts From The Sukkah

...On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot, seven days for the L-RD. -Leviticus 23:34

Tonight marks the beginning of Jewish camping season, also known as the holiday of Sukkot. This is also the opportunity for some Jews to let their inner MacGyver (or MacGoyim) out… if you have wandered around Brooklyn or Jerusalem during this holiday you know what I am talking about. It is a time when we construct makeshift shelters, or booths, where we spend time eating all of our meals and spend time in reflection, prayer, and togetherness. In stark contrast to the somber observance of Yom Kippur five days ago, this is a holiday filled with joyous celebration.

You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths. -Leviticus 23:42

The holiday of Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Ingathering. In this regard, the holiday takes on a Thanksgiving quality familiar to all Americans.

On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the L-RD your G-d for seven days. -Leviticus 23:40

In recognition of the fall harvest, we demonstrate our appreciation for all the gifts that we have been given to sustain us. The four spices that are used in prayer and practice during this holiday consist of the etrog which is a citrus fruit found in Israel (similar to a lemon), a palm branch, two willow branches, and three myrtle branches. All the branches are bound together to form the lulav which refers to the largest of the components, the palm branch. The etrog stands alone. With all spices in hand, we recite a blessing for the holiday and wave them all in six directions (north, south, east, west, up, and down) to represent the fact that G-d is omnipresent.  

Lulav? Check. Etrog? Check. Tallit? Check. AR-15? Check. Yep, everything is ready for Sukkot!

The two meanings, or common explanations, behind this combination is put succinctly on the Judaism 101 site which states:

“Why are these four plants used instead of other plants? There are two primary explanations of the symbolic significance of these plants: that they represent different parts of the body, or that they represent different kinds of Jews.

“According to the first interpretation, the long straight palm branch represents the spine. The myrtle leaf, which is a small oval, represents the eye. The willow leaf, a long oval, represents the mouth, and the etrog fruit represents the heart. All of these parts have the potential to be used for sin, but should join together in the performance of mitzvot (commandments).

“According to the second interpretation, the etrog, which has both a pleasing taste and a pleasing scent, represents Jews who have achieved both knowledge of Torah and performance of mitzvot. The palm branch, which produces tasty fruit, but has no scent, represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah but are lacking in mitzvot. The myrtle leaf, which has a strong scent but no taste, represents Jews who perform mitzvot but have little knowledge of Torah. The willow, which has neither taste nor scent, represents Jews who have no knowledge of Torah and do not perform the mitzvot. We bring all four of these species together on Sukkot to remind us that every one of these four kinds of Jews is important, and that we must all be united.”

Those are the broad strokes of the holiday but what does it mean to me?

Not only is this a holiday to give thanks for everything that G-d has provided us with, it is also a time to be humble in our surroundings and realize that when you strip everything else away we are all quite similar. Every sukkah is different and many demonstrate a distinct personality of the family or individual but the basic dimensions and requirements are the same. Some do the minimum, some pimp their temporary crib. It is all up to us.

When I stop to consider what we are remembering, 40 years wandering in the desert, this is when I am truly moved, humbled, and left with a greater appreciation of those in my life as well as a hope for the future. We all find ourselves lost or wandering at some point in our lives. Whether it is spiritually, physically, emotionally, or simply trying to get through life (maybe trying to find a job) we are all wanderers for some period of time. Some of us take multiple journeys during our days while others may be fortunate to only have a brief delay.

What we have to remember during these lost times is that we have all we really need in our lives if we just open our eyes. We have our family, friends, and a desire to keep moving forward in our search. But maybe what might be more important is that, like our ancestors wandering in the desert, we must keep in mind that all journeys, all trials of our will, come to an end at some point. We have to keep pushing. We must remain determined to improve our lives and to reach the promised land. Hope is what we need to fulfill the potential that G-d has instilled in all of us.

What does Sukkot mean to you?