Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur get all the press around here, but one of my favorite Jewish holidays usually sneaks in just before or just after the high holidays. This year in particular, with news of floods and earthquakes filling my heart and head, the festival of Sukkot seems especially worthy of holy envy.
During the weeklong celebration of Sukkot, Jewish families erect a simple shelter, called a sukkah, in their yards and eat their meals and sleep there. This is done in commemoration of the time when the Jews were wandering in the wilderness and lived in crude, flimsy tents, or “booths.” (Although Sukkot is often rendered in English as “The Feast of Tabernacles,” this is misleading, because the shelters really represent the “booths” in which the Israelites lived, not the tabernacle in which they worshipped.) While it is a simple observance, not as elaborately detailed as, for instance, a Seder, I think it may contain all of the essential elements of true religion.
The shelters are to remain open on one side–this is to commemorate Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who turned out to be angels. And the top is supposed to be open to the stars, so that when one lies down to sleep in the sukkah, the heavens are a visible reminder of God’s omnipresence and permanence.
On Tuesday, the morning after Sukkot began, I found myself sobbing in the kitchen, listening to a spokesman for Oxfam International describe the plight of those made homeless by last week’s earthquake in a mountainous region where it will soon be winter. “More tents are needed than exist in the world,” he said. “There simply aren’t enough winter tents anywhere to house these people.” The irony is bitter–some of God’s children reminding themselves of their dependence on God through a symbolic and entirely comfortable reenactment, others experiencing that dependence in such a literal and painful way.
The lesson of Sukkot, though, is that we have no way of knowing from day to day whether we will find ourselves with nothing but God to rely on. We are “the children of [our] Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” All of our defenses–houses, money, insurance, vitamins–all of them are ultimately useless. The earth shakes, the floods roar, and we are all tiny specks on a little planet that we don’t understand nearly as well as we like to think we do.
This is the sweet paradox of the sukkah: it is precisely when we acknowledge the flimsiness and impermanence of the things we build with puny human hands that we are able to most clearly see the stars and commune with the One who fixed them in their courses. And it is when we take down the walls and open our hearts to each other and to strangers that we find ourselves in the presence of angels.