The festival of Sukkot always has been my favorite, and this year has been no exception.
We have enjoyed lots of great food, extended visits with family and friends, and time off from work and school. We have tried hard to make this a z’man simchateinu, a time of our collective happiness and joy. Despite the dramatic swings in temperatures, from the 80s to the 40s, and from glorious sunshine to dreary rain, we were able to take full advantage of the holiday.
The festival also imparted three lessons that I hope we will keep top-of-mind as we prepare to re-enter the full five-day work and school weeks ahead.
The first lesson I encourage us to model more in our lives is hospitality and inclusivity. As we welcomed friends and family into our sukkah, and as we were welcomed by others, we lived the value of hachnasat orchim — of creating a welcoming, open, hospitable environment. Each night, we welcomed ushpizim — Aramaic for “guests” — into our sukkah, linking us one night at a time to historical figures from our biblical past. The kabbalists teach that these guests connect us to the seven divine attributes of lovingkindness, strength, splendor, eternity, glory, foundation, and sovereignty. In our sukkah, we discussed what we can learn from each “guest” and how we can incorporate their inspiration into our lives.
For our Jewish community, this sense of “big tent” hospitality reminds us to be inclusive of different backgrounds, opinions, perspectives, and experiences. To be truly open, like the sukkah, we recognize and include the broad diversity of our community today. As we leave the sukkah this week, I hope we will create a more open, welcoming environment for all.
The second lesson derived from a message delivered by our associate rabbi, Chaim Poupko. We build our sukkah each year in the same way with the same material; it is not required to be new, he said. Even the most critical part of the sukkah, the schach, the temporary roof covering — in our case many, many bamboo poles — are reused year after year. While we sometimes add a new decoration or two, we basically beautify our sukkah in the same way. In contrast, the lulav and etrog, the four species we gather together and wave in six directions, must be new and fresh each year.
The immutable, unchanging nature of the sukkah provides a strong foundation for our observance. But to be complete, we must bring the fresh new perspective of the lulav and etrog. The combination, therefore, provides an important lesson for ourselves and our communal institutions. We respect the foundation that has come before us, and we add to it our relevant new insights to enrich our lives.
The third lesson of this holiday is the constant need to be thankful for all that we have and to maintain a positive outlook on life. The festival of Sukkot commemorates God’s protection of the Israelites as they wandered for 40 years in the desert; we dwell in our temporary structure with its open roof and flimsy walls knowing God is watching over us. By leaving the comforts of our home, the sukkah reminds us that we have all that we truly need. (Well, my teenagers would have preferred a stronger Wi-Fi connection!) We have so much that fills us with gratitude.
This week, our Englewood community came together, young and old, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, members of different synagogues and minyanim, to spend time together and share in each other’s happy celebrations. One friend who had survived her bout with cancer hosted a moving expression of gratitude in her sukkah and spoke powerfully of her faith, trust, and belief. We were reminded as individuals and as a community to be grateful every day for our many blessings.
As we say farewell to the holiday season and to the sukkah for this year, I hope our family will keep the positive feeling of spending time together under the sheltered protection of our sukkah. I hope we will all keep in mind three lessons that can help us in the days ahead: be inclusive and welcoming of our rich diversity; value that which has come before us as well as that which is new; and express gratitude each day.
May 5777 be filled with health, happiness, and joy for all of us.