The ritual power of Sukkot

I looked on as that unique etrog scent tantalized both wide-eyed children and a frail old woman who'd seen too much

I love ritual, especially ones that activate the senses like the beautiful mitzvot associated autumn’s harvest festival, Sukkot. I would like to believe that the sacred traditions of dwelling in a sukkah under the stars and the amazing practice of shaking and waving branches in six directions have a cosmic, far reaching power; that there is an ancient, alchemical magic in these rituals that can alter the course of nature. I have no idea if this is true or not, however much joy may be derived from participating in these acts. On the Sunday of Sukkot this year, I got a whole new insight into the depth and delight of the practice of these “four species” through experiences spanning the generations.

The Torah instructs us “take for yourselves fruit from a beautiful tree, branches from a date palm, leaves from willows and willows of the brook and rejoice with them before God for seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40) There is mystery in what it all means, but the ritual has been passed down the generations as “the four species” with an etrog (a fragrant citrus fruit), a date palm, myrtle and willow leaves, held together in a bundle against the heart and waived in six directions; east, south, west, north, up and down. Whatever the origins of this rite; fertility symbols or harvest celebration offerings, layers of meaning have been added throughout time that have kept it so alive in our bodies and our imaginations. One idea is that the lemony etrog represents our heart, the lulav palm our spines, the leaves of the myrtle our eyes and of the willows, our mouths. The way we feel, see, taste and experience the world around us all become manifest in an embodied ritual!

lulav jcc 2
Learning lulav for the first time
lulav JCC
The etrog is like the heart!

On Sunday afternoon of this Sukkot, there was a lovely celebration of the dedication of a wonderful new barn at Milk and Honey Farm at the Boulder JCC, which included some activities in a sukkah. I got to lead dozens of children and some of their parents in shaking the lulav and etrog. Although some were motivated by the fact that the activity could earn them a stamp in the scavenger hunt, many were enchanted by a ritual that they were experiencing for the first time, while some of their parents were revisiting some magical memories from their own childhoods.

I explained that the mitzvah came from the heart and instructed them to hold the bundles against their hearts, close their eyes and send their prayers and blessings for the world from their hearts out to those six directions. I was very moved to see the joy, innocence, love and openness of these precious young souls transmitting their sweet energy out into time and space. I was reminded that they really are our future.

Earlier that morning, a friend shared that her own young daughter, who had been quietly singing to herself in the sukkah the night before, had told her mama that she was singing about loving people’s hearts. “If we love each other’s hearts,” she said, “then we can all finally be happy.” I imagined all that pure and beautiful intention moving through the small hands that touched the lulav bundles that afternoon.

Some of my own memories emerged of being in the sukkah of my childhood synagogue in London, which my mother always helped to decorate with beautiful flowers, plants and fruit, giving her and all of us much pleasure. I went from that joyful celebration at the JCC with my lulav and etrog to visit a 95-year-old woman in the hospital.

Irene and a lulav
Touch and smell activating memory

Irene is an incredibly beautiful soul, adored by so many. Raised in a loving, religious home of ten children in the Carpathian Mountains, which has been Czechoslovakia, Hungry and Ukraine, Irene survived Auschwitz and two other camps and is filled with unbelievable stories beyond imagination. Irene fell on the first day of Sukkot and broke her hip and had surgery the following day.

She was pretty out of it when I showed up to visit by her hospital bed. I told her that I had my lulav and etrog with me and she lit up and beamed.

I handed her the etrog. She held it like it was precious treasure, rubbing it against her face and then inhaling that fresh citrus fragrance with such pleasure. Tears started rolling down her cheeks as the smell released memory, and she shared stories of the Sukkot celebrations of her childhood, with her beloved mother, who was gassed in Auschwitz, teaching Irene and her siblings how to take and wave these same four species in the forgotten world of her past. She talked about the nut-filled pastries and stuffed cabbage and the beautiful decorative fruits, vegetables and flowers decorating their sukkah. Irene then took the lulav and etrog in her hands and recited the blessing for the mitzvah without any prompting, as well as the “She’hechiyanu” blessing “who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time.” So much poignancy in these words mingled with the pain and joy of the memories in the heart and hands of the person reciting them.

I feel so deeply moved and privileged by the counterpoint of these two moments I experienced within hours of each other. The wide open eyes of children learning something new, with their whole lives ahead of them; and frail hands of a woman who has seen too much, remembering her own childhood in full knowledge of how short her future is in this world. Young and old hands uniting loving hearts across generations through the deeply transcendent, ancient, spiritual ritual, shattering our illusions of separateness. We cannot know how or even if these acts change anything in our cosmos, but holding these fragments of nature in our hands in this fragile and dangerous world right now, connects us to something way beyond what our intellects can grasp, with the power to transform pain into joy and despair into hope.

About the Author
Marc has been the rabbi of Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado since 2004. Originally from London, he has been an actor, storyteller, healer and was very involved in Limmud in the UK. In 2015 he was honored at the White House as a climate "Champion of Change" and was on the Forward's list of inspiring rabbis. Marc has a weekly podcast called A Dash of Drash and is the narrator of two PBS documentaries about the Baal Shem Tov and other Hassidim. He was ordained in 2004 at The Ziegler School in LA and received a secondary smicha from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi shortly before he died in 2014. Marc milks goats every Sunday morning.
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