by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
Director, Religion, Spirituality and the Arts - IUPUI Arts and Humanities
Former Lake Institute Advisory Board Member
From impermanent booths exposed to the wind and rain, we learn of gratitude and generosity.
Tishrei, the first month of the Jewish year, corresponding in 2018 to September, is filled with holy days that address the universal, the individual and the community. On Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, the Jewish community celebrates the creation of the world and the ongoing cycle of cosmic renewal. Ten days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, marks a time of deep personal introspection. The twenty-four hour fast is a period of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Five days after this period of soul searching, comes the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, a festival of harvest and thanksgiving. After taking account of our world and our own lives, the community emerges to see the world to celebrate life’s gifts with revitalized responsibility. Tradition dictates that families build and dwell in small booths (sukkot) during the seven days of the festival. These fragile structures with a roof open to the sky, represent the agricultural huts built in the biblical land of Israel during the harvest and the makeshift tents in which the Israelites lived during their wilderness wanderings.
From mystical tradition arose the custom of inviting seven ancestral guests into the sukkah. These invisible historical visitors are symbols of God’s Presence and of human hospitality. Just as we are called upon to remember those of our ancestors who made a home for us, so we are required to reach out to others to welcome them into our homes. We are told – “A person should not say, I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and what is left I shall give to others, but the first of everything must be for the guests. And if one gladdens the guests and satisfies them, God rejoices.”
It may seem peculiar that Sukkot takes place as the weather begins to turn cold. The holiday might have been better celebrated in the late spring. But that is just the point. It is not comfortable to dwell in fragile structures. In doing so we are reminded of the fragility of life, of home, and of the sometimes difficult task of welcoming the stranger into our lives.
Every generation experiences its own homesickness, a feeling of being somehow out of place, a deep ache for somewhere to belong. Sukkot asks us to create a space of unconditional welcome, a hospitality that generously embraces all. Not surprisingly, Sukkot becomes the biblical model of our first American Thanksgiving.
The faith of Sukkot calls us to remember that our greatest security is not in walls but in the common welfare. Portable huts, symbols of God’s presence, remind us that God is not fixed in space. We who cherish a specific place, discover a God who loves each particular place and not just one place in particular. The Sukkah is the symbol of the journey, of how we make our way in a world unredeemed, where nature is often beautiful, but not always kind. Sukkot is the story of homemaking, of what it takes to build protection for our physical bodies and shelter for our souls and of thanksgiving for life’s gifts, those we acknowledge and those that often go unnoticed.
Living in temporary and hastily built Sukkot, exposed to cold and rain, we are taught that physical acts of nature may destroy a temporary home, but acts of human nature can build it again. From impermanent booths exposed to the wind and rain, we learn of gratitude and generosity.