A Sabbath Message: Festival of Sukkot – “To Everything There is a Season”

“To everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven.
A time to be born and a time for dying.
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted.
A time for tearing down and a time for building up.
A time for weeping and a time for laughing.
A time for wailing and a time for dancing…
Thus I realized that the only worthwhile thing there is for them is to enjoy themselves, And do what is good in their lifetime.”

– Kohelet (Book of Ecclesiastes), 3:1-12

Sabbath comes to us this week dressed in a new season: the first Shabbat of the fall season is also quite fittingly the Sabbath of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Festival of Tabernacles). Coming just after the solemn season of the High Holidays, Sukkot could not be more different if it tried. In fact, it is called Z’man Simchateynu – the Time of Our Rejoicing and it is, indeed, the only holiday on which we are commanded to be happy. On the one hand, that sounds a bit ludicrous – how can we be commanded to feel joy?! But upon further reflection, there is a lesson here for us. A reminder that life is about embracing the bitter with the sweet – in its totality.

During the High Holidays, we looked inward and we were stripped bare – we acknowledged our brokenness, we honestly confronted our mistakes and our missteps. But we have come through that process and we are now flush with life, and as we sit in our Sukkah for this week, there is nothing between us and the heavens above. We are aware of the fragility of our lives, but also reminded of our resilience. We shake our lulavim and etrogim with joy, embracing these ancient symbols, hearing the sound of the rains to come. In synagogue on Tuesday with my family, 200 worshippers processed in the age-old custom of the Hakafot, walking around in the ancient parade, holding fast to these unique species of old – I look forward to it each year, so missed last year in person.

This Sabbath, we traditionally read Kohelet – The Book of Ecclesiastes – the text chosen for Sukkot, containing the famous passage quoted above “To Everything There is a Season.” There is something so appropriate about this text for this holiday. The serious introspection of the High Holidays juxtaposed with the unbridged joy of the fullness of the fall harvest of the Sukkot season certainly suggests that “to everything there is a season.” Indeed, both “seasons” are needed to fulfill the other – “a time to reap and a time to sow, a time to weep and a time to rejoice.” But I have always thought that other parts of Ecclesiastes are inherently pessimistic.  The familiar refrain that starts the book repeats three times throughout it: “Utter futility, utter futility – all is futile!” On its surface, it wouldn’t appear to get any more depressing than that assertion that life is just a meaningless exercise. But, King Solomon, to whom the book is attributed gives us a clue as to its true meaning, as we delve deeper into the text: the key is to embrace the temporality of life and savor the moment. Rather than seek permanence, make an impact in the moments we are given. The final part of the quote above is often forgotten, we must do what is good in our lifetimes. Make our mark when we can with the time we have.

I have often thought that it is too bad that Yom Kippur is the day that all Jews show up and come to synagogue. Don’t get me wrong – atonement for one’s sins and introspection is a good thing, but the somber intensity of the day is not who we really are meant to be as Jews. It is a funny thing when you think about it – notwithstanding all of the jokes about Jewish guilt. But the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar actually comes every week – and that is the Sabbath. (Remember that the Sabbath is the only holiday which made it into the Ten Commandments!) And the Sabbath is all about joy. But in recent years, most synagogues don’t get the same crowds they used to for a regular Shabbat service, while they are always packed for Yom Kippur. I know we are all busy and life gets in the way – I get it. But it is kind of a shame, since the fact is, Shabbat and Sukkot are SO much more fun! Of course, as we have been saying, both are needed to complete the picture of who we are as complete Jews, but it definitely seems to be “out of whack” that Yom Kippur has become the Super Bowl of Judaism.

And so, we are left with a choice: Do we want to be Shabbat/Sukkot Jews or Yom Kippur Jews in our daily lives? How do we want to see the world and move through this life? Thinking of it more as a mindset, with the knowledge that “to everything there is a season,” and that we can ultimately embrace both when the opportunity arises, I suggest that our default choice should be as joyful Shabbat/Sukkot Jews. Thus, when we have the choice, we choose JOY, which is more than just “fun” referred to above: it is a deep release of the soul. We all know that we don’t always have complete control of our lives, but when we do, we must seize it and create the reality we wish for ourselves and our loved ones. This is the lesson of Sukkot.

As you move forward through your lives, I leave you with this thought about how we choose to see things: The word “corona” is used in various ways – on the one hand, it is the name of a deadly virus and international pandemic we have all been dealing with for 18 months. On the other, it is the brightest part of the sun seen only during a complete solar eclipse. And so, we have the choice, as it were, to think of the dark and deadly definition – or the one which brings the brightest light in the darkest moment. To some extent, that choice will always be ours.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – and a Chag Sameach – a Joyous Sukkot,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service


Photo caption: In my family’s small, informal Sukkah, we enjoy this holiday both with its fragility and its protection – as well as rejoicing in the plenty of the new fall season which is now upon us.