They say that the holiday of Sukkot is a demonstration of the Jewish people’s trust in Divine protection, a reflection of the Clouds of Glory that shielded the Children of Israel in the wilderness. I never truly appreciated the beauty and spirituality of this idea until my family moved to Montreal six years ago.
Sukkot is known as Z’man Sim’chah’tay’nu, The Time of Our Rejoicing. It’s meant to be the happiest time of the year. For many centuries, when life was far more agriculturally based, this was the time of year when each family brought in it’s harvest. Surrounded by fruitfulness and plenty, it was a time to thank God for His generosity. Today, most Jews aren’t working in the fields, but the autumn still retains that sense of new beginnings. (Certainly many mothers are rejoicing as the new school year begins!)
With the harvest in, or for more modern times with the return of the hustle and bustle of the fall, it is easy for a person to sit back and pat themselves on the back for their achievements. I know that I feel that way come September. As a parent, I praise myself for surviving the unscheduled wilderness of the summer and for having given my children an enjoyable summer to carry them into the school year. (Well they have to have something to write about in those “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essays!) As an employee in a non-profit, I feel a sense of pride in contributing to our organizations success into the next year.
And then comes Sukkot. It’s a lot of fun. All around us families are busy hammering and drilling. From Rosh Hashana onward, the landscape of our neighborhood is transformed as each family builds themselves a small booth in which they will eat and (for some, not all) sleep. There are sukkot made of hard plastic, the prefabs that have transparent window panes and faux wood design. There are the Sukkot made of canvas, their walls pulled taut by ropes. And there are my favorite sukkot of all, the ones with wooden walls cut down by the owner, sanded and varnished. Each one of these many types of booths is made kosher by the addition of s’chach, the natural roofing that is meant to only mostly protect the sukkah dweller from the elements. The roof of the hut must be made from anything of plant origin that is now detached from the ground but has not undergone any manufacturing process nor had a previous use nor may it be edible. In order to be a proper sukkah, there must be enough s’chach so that there is more shadow than sunlight. It may not, however, be so dense that one is unable to see the larger stars at night or that the rain cannot penetrate.
The permeable roof and the coming of winter is what makes Sukkot in Montreal (or any other Canadian city) a holiday that I both rejoice in and dread. Although I have yet to experience it, my husband and other natives to this city have described sitting in their sukkot watching it snow. Should I say that again…snow!! Some years I’ve bundled my children up in their snowsuits before coming to dinner. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to eat a meal in a hat, scarf, and gloves while looking like a mini-Michelin man?
So on Sukkot, Jews around the world eat delicious food that once upon a time would have been made from the food that we ourselves had grown, sitting in a unit of temporary construction and hoping that it doesn’t rain or snow or that a cold wind doesn’t blow through. This is why Sukkot is known as the time in which we demonstrate our trust in God. Sitting outside reminds us that no matter how successful we may feel, no matter how fruitful our bounty, it is that way because God sent the rains at the right time and the right place, that He kept the crop healthy or the specific business in the black
On the flip side, it is not a holiday that one only celebrates if one has been successful. Those who have had tough years also go out to the sukkah and are commanded to rejoice on this holiday. Let’s be honest, all people go through good times and bad, and the last few years have been particularly difficult for many people. The rejoicing that we do on Sukkot is also a reflection on the fact that this holiday immediately follows Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement and the Day of Atonement. We rejoice because we have done it…we have gone through the heavenly courts and we assume that our atonement has been accepted. In fact, it is customary to throw oneself into the mitzvah of Sukkot by beginning the building process the night after Yom Kippur. It’s a demonstration of the joy in performing the mitzvah. It’s a statement that we will trust in God yet again this year.
This year, we are lucky that Sukkot begins in mid-September. The morning before Rosh Hashana it was beautiful and warm. Children were wearing shorts. I had hopes that this year would be beautiful and glorious. And then the weather began to change. Mornings and evenings are significantly colder… You see, I’m a cold person by nature, so from the beginning of our move here I was very nervous about the Montreal Sukkot experience. (My husband, being incredibly thoughtful, found a large outdoor heater that he attaches to the sukkah wall each year. It’s nice, but if I move to the right or the left, I lose the heat).
It may seem trivial, but fear of the cold is the way I demonstrate my trust in God. It’s a reminder to myself that God makes each day beautiful or stormy, and that what control I think I have of my own world is constantly being course-corrected by a far greater power then myself.
If you are interested in learning more about Sukkot, Jewish Treat’s Guide to Celebrating Sukkot is an excellent and free resource. Click here to download.