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Reflections on Sukkot

October 2011

I found myself daydreaming last night while washing the dishes from dinner. My sink looks out onto our porch where our Feast of Tabernacle booth, our Sukka, stands, slightly darkening the kitchen. The Feast of Tabernacles is one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Maybe because it comes on the heels of the High Holy Days of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement- and we are so ready to feel the release of a festival that commands us, in the Scriptures, to be happy! Both in Leviticus 23:40—“and you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d seven days” and in Deuteronomy 16:14 — “…and thou shalt rejoice in thy feast…thou shalt surely rejoice.” From the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei when the Jewish New Year begins, with its two days of prayer and the ram’s horn call to Repentance, until the tenth day of Tishrei which marks the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting and introspection, there is a sense of solemnity, of awe, for the holiness of the season. For it is the period when God is inscribing us, sealing our fate for the coming year.

And then… four days later—the Feast of Tabernacles! A drastic transition to this festival of joy! There is a tradition that upon breaking the fast of the Day of Atonement, Jewish families around the world change out of their holiday clothes and start building their sukka, their Feast of Tabernacles booth. We want to say to God that our prayers, our claims of repentance, our pledging to improve our ways, are sincere and well-founded, and we want to start our year with the immediate promise of the fulfillment of a commandment.

My husband Kuti still had a headache from the long fast but our overly eager children only gave him a few minutes to recuperate. They started dragging the pieces of the sukka from our storage area in the backyard, up to our porch. I happily watched from the window over the kitchen sink, marveling that the boys were getting to the age that they could really help and not just get in the way. Perhaps Elitzur was a bit too enthusiastic with the metal poles that formed the frame of our sukka, but everyone managed to duck away from the swinging danger. Then they brought up the piles of tied up bamboo sticks, sneezing from the year’s worth of collected dust. Soon our porch looked like a building zone and Kuti went down to the basement and brought out the fabrics that served as the walls and as many hammers as he could find. Sukkot nowadays are made so cleverly. The poles fit into each other and slide through sewn sleeves in the fabric walls; so very soon our large booth was built. The roof must be made of organic materials and should be partially open to the sky. After spreading out our bamboo poles on top of our structure we threw dozens of huge palm fronds on top and we were done.

Jews are instructed to construct a sukka, a temporary structure in which to dwell for the holiday. We eat our meals there, entertain our guests, hang out and relax, study our Bible and even sleep there. The sukkot are reminiscent of the type of huts in which the Israelites dwelled during their forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. They reflect God’s benevolence in providing for all the Jews’ needs in the desert and it recalls the protective “Clouds of Glory” that surrounded the Jewish nation during their wanderings in the desert. This frail structure is meant not to be too sturdy, in order to remind us of the transience of life, and we are asked to leave our homes, go out into nature into these booths and to remember that true security comes from our faith in God… and not from the supposed stability our possessions bring. Our new house for the following week is done and I come out to ooh and aah. I love the feeling of being outside but not really outside. The children want to start decorating but I promise them that as soon as they come home from school the following day we can get started. And we do. We take out the decorations from last year and weed out what didn’t survive well and keep things that we are attached to. I get my sewing kit and start pinning up the pictures of the Seven Species of Israel. Sukkot, besides being a historical holiday is also a harvest festival and is sometimes referred to with its agricultural name of “The Festival of Ingathering”. The large, close up pictures of wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives and dates, remind me—and I know I’ve said this before!—that I’m living in the land that the holiday’s agricultural name refers to, and I swallow around a lump in my throat. My kids are busy gluing and stapling yards upon yards of paper strips into vibrant chains and soon our ceiling is strewn with color, the chains intermingling with tinsel streamers. By the time Kuti comes home from work he has to find empty spots on the ceiling to string up the lights for our sukka. He runs the electricity wiring through our temporary roof and when he tries the lights everyone is thrilled with the result of our work. We started a tradition years ago—and I simply love starting some of our own family traditions—to have a verse from the Scriptures or the Book of Prayers or a popular national song —emblazoned on the front fabric wall of our Sukka, facing the street. Every year we give it great thought, trying to make the words meaningful and timely. During the year of struggle and protests in Israel, when the threat of disengagement hung over the country, we put up the verse from Psalms, “For the Lord will not cast off his people, nor will he forsake his inheritance.” The following year, still reeling from the Gush Katif expulsion less than two months earlier, we hung up the words of the song which had become a mantra for the Gush Katif struggle: “God’s eternal nation does not fear the long, hard road.” A few years ago, we felt the need to devote that wall of the Sukka with something which would remind ourselves and passersby of an issue that was sadly still unresolved: Our missing, beloved soldiers who were still being held captive behind enemy lines. We chose the verse from Isaiah 35: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads.”Amen.

My oldest, Avigayil, was always the one who cut out the large block letters from colorful cardboard and the year after she got married, she left me a message on my phone saying that she will come before the holiday in time to do the cutting and hanging and not to give her job away. I was thrilled that she wanted to keep her job. This year she and Matan did not build their own sukka and were coming to share the holidays with us, but I hope in later years she takes this family tradition as her own to continue with her own family in her own home.

Part of our tradition is taking a picture of all of the children in front of the Sukka, after everyone is dressed for the holiday and before I light candles. These pictures become a journal of sorts as the years pass. Each year our neighbors know to look for that year’s verse as they pass, that first night after candle lighting ushers in the holiday, and they walk towards synagogue for the evening service. I love sitting inside the Sukka, listening to people reading the words aloud to themselves as they pass. Tables and chairs are brought outside since all our meals for the week will be eaten in the Sukka. The tables are covered with our best cloths, the dishes and silverware gracing our table, nobody minding the bits of leaves that keep floating down to dot our table and our plates. Inside, our dining room table, not needed for dining for the week, assumes another purpose. Littering the table are yellow green citron fruits, stalks of date palms, and branches of myrtle and willow. Kuti, Avraham, Netanel and Elitzur are busily binding sets of the Four Species, needed for the daily blessings and waving ceremony. The tall, stately date palm takes the center and the myrtle and willow branches are bound tightly on each side. When the blessing is made every day of the holiday, the citron fruit is held close to the bound bundle and the four species are then pointed and gently shaken three times toward the north, south, east and west and then up and down, to attest to God’s mastery over all of creation. Rabbinical commentaries compare The Four Species, with their variety of tastes and scents, to four types of people with varied levels of observance, good deeds and Torah study. Their being tied together symbolizes our desire to unite all types of Jews in service of God. Avraham came home this year with another interesting idea that he learned. Commentaries suggest that the shapes of these species correspond to different parts of the body: the spine is the date palm, the eyes are the leaves of the myrtle, the mouth is the leaves of the willow and the citron is the heart. By binding them together in keeping God’s commandment the Jew shows his eagerness to consecrate his entire being to serving God.

When synagogues full of worshipers take out their sets of the Four Species for the waving ceremony, there is a heady lemony smell of the citron and the rushing sound of branches waving in the air. It brings me to a state that I can almost picture the majesty which once was the waving ceremony in the time of the glorious Temple. I know what we have now pales in comparison and I pray for the day we will return to those days of splendor, but in the meantime I am content. I am already living in the Land which will see the Redemption, please God. And meanwhile I am following God’s commandment to gather these Four Species. It is a huge thrill for our family that we have two of these four species growing in our very own backyard. We have our own huge, lush willow tree with enough willows to use for our own fulfillment of the commandment and for us to share with the whole neighborhood. It is our pleasure to keep a ladder and clippers handy to allow friends and neighbors to help themselves. We even have our own citron tree bearing its scented fruit just in time for the holiday’s use! Only in Israel can you feel the direct connection between the Jewish holidays and the agricultural calendar.

The meal is filled with good food and lots of laughter as we all troop into the house to wash our hands before partaking of bread. Ahuva and Leora open the kitchen window that opens into our Sukka and they serve some of the courses that way, straight through the window to Atara and Avraham, waiting to receive the drinks and platters of food. During the holiday, Jews invite seven spiritual “guests” (known as ushpizzin in Aramaic) to be with them each of the seven days of the holiday in the Sukka. These virtual guests are the seven “shepherds” of Israel. They are the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph (Jacob’s son), Moses, Aaron (Moses’s brother, the first High Priest), and King David. Each day we read the welcoming passage for that day’s “guest” and try to spend some time each day discussing the quality that each of those heroes of Israel personified. Another tradition our family started is that every evening we sing songs beginning with each letter of the name of the spiritual guest of that day. Our meals in our Sukka are always filled with song and this tradition lends a sense of fun and gives us the first round of songs. We love pausing once in a while to hear what the neighbors are singing, and either joining them or trying to get them to join us. It’s a holiday when everyone is outside and it is a joy to hear the singing from all sides—each family with its own melodies, its own distinct flavor.

When we realize the timer will automatically put out all the lights soon, leaving our “home” in darkness, we say good-bye to our guests, clean up from the meal and transform our Sukka into a massive bedroom! We drag out mattresses from everyone’s beds, squeezing them through hallways, bouncing them down stairs, bring out covers, pillows, books to read before bed and even games to have ready to play with in the morning. This is truly our house for the week. It’s hard not to treat it like one big pajama party but somehow things eventually become still. Netanel and Elitzur sprawled on their covers, Leggo pieces under their limbs; Avraham, having fallen asleep with his glasses on while reciting the prayer for bedtime; and Kuti sits with a couple of apples and a Bible to snack and study a bit before bed.

I remember how in America there were sometimes Sukkot seasons which were so cold that we couldn’t even eat outside, much less sleep outside. I remember huddling at the threshold of the Sukka, waiting for the rain to stop, and then eating our soup, huddled in heavy sweaters to brave the cold. Here the weather is so summery sometimes, that people bring portable fans into their sukka; and the walls are usually made of the thinnest cotton to allow them to breathe and let in any welcome air. The intermediate days of the holiday are days for taking trips and getting together with friends. Since many Jews will eat nothing except a small snack outside the Sukka, in Israel it is common practice for hotels, restaurants, even National Parks and local zoos to provide an eating Sukka for their guests. I love this country. I love seeing Sukkot built on the rooftops of shopping malls. I love driving though winding forest roads looking for the beginning of a hiking trail and rounding the last bend to find a Sukka waiting for hungry travelers. What our family tries to do for at least one day of the holiday, is just hang out– in the Sukka. We stop running for one day and spend the time under God’s canopy playing board games, napping, reading the Bible, and enjoying each other and the holiday. It helps us remember that this is our home for the week. It’s a glorious season, a time that brings home to us what we already know: Where we dwell is not important as long as we dwell in the ways of God and put our faith in his protection.

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
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