A Sabbath Message: The Lessons of Sukkot – Fragility and Resilience

“U’vros aleynu sukkat shelomecha –
May You spread over us the Divine Sukkah of peace.”

– Traditional evening liturgy
“In the Sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security, we let go of this need. The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another.”
– Rabbi Alan Lew (1943-2009)

Under the first full moon of the fall season, many will light our Sabbath candles this evening in a Sukkah, as we also celebrate Sukkot – The Feast of Tabernacles. In some ways, the most mysterious of our holidays, this one is also the most tangible – as it is filled with ritual and fun. I personally have such fond memories of this holiday, building and decorating a Sukkah with my father – and sleeping under the stars with my family as a young child. And we did the same when our own daughters were young. As one of the Shalosh Regalim – three Pilgrimage Holidays, each with a religious and an agricultural significance, Sukkot is connected to the 40-year journey of our people’s wandering in the desert, as well as a celebration of the fall harvest. But with its beautiful rituals, the Sukkah we build and dwell in for the week; the Lulav, a special palm frond we wave as we pray, with its myrtle and willow leaves; and the Etrog, the very specific citron we use only on this holiday – this festival incorporates some interesting contradictions.

On the one hand, on this Feast of Booths we are reminded of the fragility of life. The Sukkah we dwell in this week is meant to remind us of the fragile existence the Israelites experienced as they wandered on their desert journey, with its dangers and uncertainty. Like the fragility of our lives, the walls are flimsy and there is no roof to keep out inclement weather. In ancient times, the fall harvest of this season, was crucial before the winter months set in. And yet, Sukkot is also referred to as Z’man Simchateynu – Season of our Rejoicing, as this holiday reminds us to find joy in the simple moments and gratitude for the gifts of the land. As we invite our ancestors to join us at our table in the Sukkah, a custom we call Ushpizin – we joyfully recall the simple gifts of being together to celebrate this beautiful festival under a full moon!

Perhaps it is no accident that the Biblical book we read only this week in honor of this festival is Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. Of course, it was the scholars of the 1960’s rock band, The Byrds, who made the words from the book famous: “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn – and a time to every purpose under heaven…” At first glance, this is one of the more positive quotes from the book. There is definitely a pessimistic premise which suffuses much of the spirit of Kohelet, which may be familiar in lines such as: “There is nothing new under the sun,” or “Vanity, vanity – all is vanity!” But looking deeper, the reader of this book will find something extraordinary: that what we really find here is a philosophical struggle between succumbing to meaninglessness and the ability to grasp the beauty of the present. It is indeed the perfect book for this season. We know death awaits us, but what we have now can be beautiful and precious, if we choose to see it. Wisdom and gratitude are two of the gifts to be appreciated in the here and now which can make our lives full and meaningful.

While fragility is one central lesson of Sukkot, the other is the importance of resilience – and that is a powerful message for our times. While I am sure, after 7 months of a pandemic no one needs a further reminder of the fragility of life, how fitting is the holiday of Sukkot. Unlike our other holidays which celebrate miracles, instead, Sukkot embraces vulnerability, which is a condition we have known for millennia. Yet, it is also about the resilience of the human spirit. As the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “Sukkot is about faith as persistence, the strength not to be defeated by tragedy, and the courage to begin again after you have lost all you had.” I read a beautiful explanation about the seasonal change in our liturgy on the last day of Sukkot, when we change the line in our daily prayers from acknowledging the Divine who “brings down the dew” (said in the summer months) to the One who “causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” (said in the winter). With the onset of fall, we need the wind and rain for our crops to grow. But we also need the wind to develop the resilience to face difficult conditions in our lives. Rabbi Sacks reminds us that this resilience is “about the breath of God within us that helps broken hearts to heal and broken lives to be rebuilt.” We may not be able to gather in person on this Sukkot, but we can sit under the stars, under a full moon, and invite our ancestors to help us find this strength and gratitude for the here and now of our lives.  
Wishing you a peaceful Shabbat – and a Chag Sukkot Sameach – a joyous Sukkot holiday,
Ruth Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service