You shall live in sukkot seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I YHVH your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)
Building a sukkah, eating our meals in the sukkah, sleeping in the sukkah if the weather permits — all of these activities serve to remind us of some powerful truths. The sukkah is a simple structure; it reminds us of the value of simplicity, of not getting overly caught up in the excesses of our lives. We take very little with us into the sukkah — a table and some chairs, something to sleep on, a few decorations. It reminds us of what we need and don’t need.
For those of us with houses stuffed with possessions, it reminds us of the incredible excess we both enjoy and suffer from here in America. We are liberated in the sukkah when we can celebrate the harvest, the abundance of our lives, with a little distance from our material possessions.
The sukkah is open to the elements — there needs to be enough space in the roof for rain to get through, and it cannot shelter us from the cold. Yet it is in the sukkah that we are invited to feel God’s presence in our lives. The sukkah reminds us that security ultimately doesn’t come from walls, possessions or barriers, but from opening our hearts and our homes to others — from remaining open ourselves. We let a little rain in and know that we’ll be OK.
The sukkah must be a nonpermanent structure, yet it serves to remind us of how long we’ve been around as a people — all the way back to our ancestors’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. It reminds us that all of life is ephemeral, and the only thing that lasts is our connection to other people — through time and space — and to the Power of life and liberation that gives us life as individuals and as a community.
The sukkah is a site of paradox. In its simplicity, we celebrate the abundance of the year’s harvest. In its fragility, we feel ourselves protected by the “sukkat shalom” (sukkah of peace) of Godly love. In its impermanence, we connect ourselves to the eternal.
The sukkah points to other, less savory paradoxes: the growing rate of poverty in the richest country in the world; the threat of bombing a country in an attempt to protect human life; the ability to replicate life even as we destroy the very basis of life on this planet.
Turn, the sukkah tells us, turn — away from excess, from much too much — toward simply enough. Turn away from violent fantasies to building structures of peace. Turn away from illusions of invulnerability to the reality of our precious, temporary lives.
Rabbi Toba Spitzer is the spiritual leader of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, MA (www.dorsheitzedek.org). She is a former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and was the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi to serve as the head of a national rabbinic organization. Rabbi Spitzer has been involved for many years in work for social and economic justice in the U.S. and for Middle East peace. Her life goal is to bowl in every state (31 down so far!).
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