Having taken time off from work recently, my non Jewish colleagues were naturally interested as to how we celebrate Rosh Hashana. This is fairly easy to explain as our New Year, with symbolic honey for a sweet new year, round apples (as the year goes round) and time for reflection and a fresh start. In fact many of our festivals are similarly easy to explain as they are rooted in specific historical events and linked to miracles – Yom Kippur (sin of the Golden Calf / Atonement & Forgiveness), Pesach (Leaving Egypt through miracles / Freedom & beginning of a Nation), Shavuot (Revelation on Mount Sinai / Gift of the Torah). Sukkot I find much harder to explain !
On a simple level, we are told to “Live in Sukkot for seven days” so that we are reminded that our ancestors lived in ‘booths’ after they were brought out from Egypt. However if this was the reason maybe we should have a Seder in a Sukkah at Pesach: so why celebrate Sukkot at this time of year?
The term Sukkah – as well as referring to the ‘booth’ we sit in, also refers to the miraculous ‘clouds of glory’ that followed our ancestors around the desert on their travels – protecting them from the harsh sun, extreme weather conditions and natural dangers, bringing comfort and luxury during the barren sojourns. It is said that after the sin of the Golden Calf, those ‘clouds of glory’ were removed, and only after we were forgiven as a nation on Yom Kippur did they return.
So here we have several reasons why we celebrate Sukkot at this time of year. This is when the ‘clouds of glory’ returned. Also, by taking to a Sukkah in the Autumn we show our trust and faith in God.
On Rosh Hashana we stood before God in judgment and made a fresh start. On Yom Kippur, we were purified and repented for all our collective sins. Sukkot is the culmination of the closeness with God that we have achieved during the preceding days and weeks. We can now wave our Lulav in all directions in recognition of HaShem’s omnipresence, and literally immerse ourselves in a Sukkah (like using a Mikvah we can use our entire bodies to fulfill the Mitzvah of being in a Sukkah).
So perhaps when my colleagues ask me why I have been off work – again – and ask me what Sukkot is about - I can explain that we leave left the comfort of our homes to spend time in a simple hut – and it reminded me of our humble roots as nomads in the desert, made me more sensitive to the plight of modern day refugees and more appreciative of my daily comforts, about trust in God to provide for all that we need, being thankful for food at this ‘harvest season’, and to remember that ultimately when you are happily spending time with family and friends it does not matter what possessions you have or what your surroundings are.
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach