“On the first day, you shall take the product of the beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God for seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40)
“In the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the crop of the land, you shall celebrate God’s festival for a seven day period….” (Leviticus 23:42)
Hands down, my favorite Jewish holiday is Sukkot. After the high of the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur dissolve into a simmering whoosh of preparation for zeman simchatenu, the time of our rejoicing. Originally framed as a harvest holiday, Sukkot, which is infused with agricultural, spiritual and historical dimensions, is designated as Ha Chag–THE holiday. Jewish tradition teaches that we are to put the first nail in our Sukkah, the booth which we are commanded to build and live in for seven days, when the ark closes after Neilah and the shofar is sounded at the end of Yom Kippur. THE joyful holiday, replete with etrog and lulav, is juxtaposed against the breast-beating of Selicot and Rosh Hashanah and the fasting during Yom Kippur. It is an intersection of Divine time and space, where Jews enjoy abundant food, a bounty of blessings and unmitigated camaraderie with friends and invited guests, both real and spiritual ushpuzim.
For many years, when we had a house in the suburbs we built a Sukkah on our back deck adjacent to our kitchen. Our friend, Dr. Neil Balick, whom we tragically lost this year to pancreatic cancer used to erect it for us, and my friend and Hebrew teacher, Tamar Tulin, hand painted the canvas walls so the Sukkah, where I used to serve 22 people nightly for the entire holiday were able to rejoice in a festive, brightly-colored atmosphere. When we moved to a condo in Center City Philadelphia, giving up the ritual and delight of rejoicing and entertaining in our own Sukkah was a loss. Now we look to the synagogues or other private spaces to enter for THE holiday, or if we’re lucky to head to Israel, where Sukkot is celebrated in all of its grandeur.
Part of the symbolism of Sukkot, is about the temporality of our dwellings. After the Jewish people were freed from Egyptian slavery, they lived in booths which by necessity were moved from place to place during their wanderings in the desert. Two years ago, this month, Hurricane Sandy, like many other human disasters caused throngs of people to be displaced from their homes, and forced to live in temporary shelters. We were thankfully spared displacement, but our home at the Jersey shore sustained blanket ruination in the outdoor areas.
Without the costly rebuilding of our bulkhead and decking, the next storm to hit might have swept our beach house into the bay. Now it is newly renovated and freshly landscaped and quite lovely and colorful again. This past summer I was even able to plant herbs in between the flowers—parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and basil, which nourished by the proximity of the water grows green and hearty. I will use the herbs in soups that we will bring to people’s Sukkot to celebrate the holiday. It’s a big WOW for me! I hope Sukkot is glorious for you, too. Chag Samech!