This Sunday night, Jews the world over will begin observing the seven day holiday called Sukkot, or as it’s so oddly translated in English, the “Feast of Booths.” I prefer the clearer NIV Bible translation, which renders the word sukkah as “temporary shelter.” That really gets to what this commandment of the holiday is all about: leaving your homes for seven days to go camp out (usually in the backyard) in a temporary shelter. The reason for this strange ritual is explained very briefly in Leviticus 23:43 as being to commemorate the desert journey of the Children of Israel, traveling to the Promised Land after leaving Egypt, who had to construct temporary shelters to live in while on the road.
Googling around, I came across a wonderful passage from the work of Philo, a Greek-Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the first century C.E. In his book De Specialibus Legibus, “On the Special Laws” (2:204, 206-211), he gives a fascinating explanation for the commandment to dwell in the sukkah:
“…it should remind us of the long wanderings of our forefathers in the depths of the desert, when at every halting-place they spent many a year in tents. And indeed it is well in wealth to remember your poverty, in distinction your insignificance, in high offices your position as a commoner, in peace your dangers in war, on land the storms on sea, in cities the life of loneliness. For there is no pleasure greater than in high prosperity to call to mind old misfortunes. But besides giving pleasure, it is a considerable help in the practice of virtue. For people who having had both good and ill before their eyes have rejected the ill and are enjoying the good, necessarily fall into a grateful frame of mind and are urged to piety by the fear of a change to the reverse, and also therefore in thankfulness for their present blessings they honor God with songs and words of praise and beseech Him and propitiate Him with supplications that they may never repeat the experience of such evils.”
In other words, we aren’t acting out this ritual just to remember an event that took place long ago. No. Rather, we remember our history (by reenacting it!) in order to feel grateful for what we have right now. Sometimes, you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. That’s the lesson of Sukkot for me: don’t take all the gifts and blessings you have for granted. Given what we know about how essential gratitude is for being happy, maybe this is part of the reason that the prayer book calls Sukkot “the season of our happiness.”
Beyond gratitude, remembering our humble beginnings also ensures that we never forget the God who is responsible for it all, both in history and right now. The God who housed our ancestors in tents in the desert is the same God who enables us and blesses with our wealth and comfort today.
Deuteronomy 8:11-18 gives us this stirring reminder:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God…Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and…all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…”
How true indeed. May our gratitude and our humility before God be the source of our joy this week. Happy holiday to all who are celebrating.