When I was three years old, my family lived in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma When sukkot came around, we built our sukkah in the front of our house in the driveway. It was wooden and painted a green color very similar to the evergreens some of us use for s’chach. Needless to say— you couldn’t miss it. That year, my birthday on the secular calendar coincided with sukkot so my parents decided to have my birthday party in the sukkah. A reporter and photographer from the local paper had heard about my family’s ‘Festival Booth’ and came to our home to do a story about the holiday at the same time as my birthday party. The next day, there was a big picture of me with my friends in the Sukkah in the local section of the paper with the caption- Miss Marianne Novak celebrates her 3rd birthday in her family’s festival booth.’ The caption listed all my 3 year old friends with the title of ‘Miss’ or ‘Master’.It was adorable.
Many, many years later , the Chicago Tribune did a story on ‘Women of Faith’ and interviewed me and a number of other women in the Orthodox community here in Skokie. The story was written around sukkot time and the photograph taken of me to accompany the story again had me in my sukkah.
Temporary fame aside, Sukkot has always been a special holiday to me. I love the time of year, I love the liturgy and I love the many, many rituals—from sitting in the sukkah to waving the lulav. And with all the work and with the preparations, it sort of feels like Pesach. Which, when you think about it, wouldn’t be so far off. After all- one of the reasons we sit in the sukkah is to commemorate the actual sukkot , the temporary structures our ancestors lived in while we traveled in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
As we read in the Torah reading today: (Vayikra 23:42-43):
בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת׃
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths,
לְמַעַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה׳
in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.’
In the Mekhilta on Parashat Bo in Sh’mot, Rabbi Akiva explains that we sit in the sukkah to remember the ענני הכבוד, the clouds of glory that along with the pillar of fire, that brought shelter, comfort and security to our ancestors when they traveled in the desert for 40 years . The clouds of glory were a physical manifestation of God’s presence on earth.
So if these are some of the reasons for building and dwelling in the sukkah, why don’t we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot right after the holiday of Pesach? Well, of course, practically if the Rabbis decided to it this way, there would probably be a revolt. (It would just be too much Yom Tov and we would all just be completely exhausted).
But as we saw- Rabbi Akiva teaches, one of the reasons for the sukkah, is the Annanai HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory that were surrounding the people when we left Egypt, right at Pesach time. So, again, why aren’t we celebrating Sukkot right after Pesach? The easiest answer of course is that God commands us to observe this holiday in the Torah on the fifteenth of Tishrei again, as we read today: (ibid 23: 34)
דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֨ה עָשָׂ֜ר י֗וֹם לַחֹ֤דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי֙ הַזֶּ֔ה חַ֧ג הַסֻּכּ֛וֹת שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים הֹ׃
Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the LORD, [to last] seven days.
But perhaps the better question is not why we don’t celebrate Sukkot at Pesach time, but rather why do we celebrate Sukkot only five days after Yom Kippur?
Eliyahu Kitov explains in his wonderful Sefer Ha-toda’ah, the Book of Our Heritage building on a Midrash of the Vilna Gaon on Shir HaShirim, that on Yom Kippur,when B’nai Yisrael committed the sin of the Golden Calf, the Clouds of Glory that had been surrounding the Jewish people, left- departed from their midst. When Moshe returns after his third time up the mountain, he assembles the people to bring gifts dedicated to Gd (Shemot 35:5)— and then all those ‘willing of heart’ – nadiv libo-volunteer artisans took those gifts and then on the 15th of Tishrei- the day we celebrate Sukkot- these artisans began to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle- the movable building for service to Gd in the desert.
It was on that day—Kitov writes-‘ the 15th of Tishrei, that the clouds of glory returned and became a sukkah, a protective shelter over the camp of Israel…. Just as God left Heaven … and caused his presence to dwell on earth in the Mishkan in the midst of the camp of Israel, so too does Israel show God that they also leave their homes and dwell with [God] in a sukkah, in the protective shelter of HaShem’s faithfulness.’(vol I, p. 124)
Another term that our tradition uses to describe God’s presence on earth is the Shekhinah- coming from the root in Hebrew לשכן- to physically dwell. The Shekhinah -the word being in the feminine- denotes the nurturing, kind and traditionally feminine aspects of the way we as humans perceive Gd’s personality. And the Vilna Gaon explains that we celebrate Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei because ‘…on this date we [the Jewish people] merited again to sit under the wings of the Shekhinah- תחת כנפי שכינה.’ (Divrei Eliyahu, Emor)
So, we sit in the Sukkah knowing that God’s presence is ever that much closer to us and that after Yom Kippur, the HKBH has indeed forgiven us. And perhaps that is why (Dev 16:14-15)
ושמחת בחגך ….והיית אך שמח
‘You shall rejoice in your chag – chag meaning Sukkot-and you should be so happy!’
God has forgiven you and has come down to earth to visit you in your sukkah. The Zohar, the core text of Jewish mysticism states that when we leave the comfort of our homes for the sukkah and we do it for the sake of heaven, לשם שמים, for the sake of Heaven, we merit welcoming in the Shekhinah- and other guests- Ushpizin who come from Heaven to be our guests as well. Some of you may have this tradition of Ushpizin- of welcoming in the heavenly guests of : Avraham, Yitzchak, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef and Daveed. They special guests join us in the Sukkah to celebrate our joy of following God’s commandments. Admittedly, I did not grow up with this custom but my family and I have now adopted it as not only Ushpizin but also Ushpizot-female prophets of Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Avigayil, Esther and Rivka.
But sitting in sukkah of course is not the only ritual we have for this holiday. As we read today, we not only dwell in the Sukkah, and in Temple times we brought many sacrifices but we are also instructed to: (Lev. 23:40)
וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
The pasuk, the verse before gives us a clue as to why we take the lulav and etrog.
אַ֡ךְ בַּחֲמִשָּׁה֩ עָשָׂ֨ר י֜וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י בְּאָסְפְּכֶם֙ אֶת־תְּבוּאַ֣ת הָאָ֔רֶץ תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֶת־חַג־ה’ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בַּיּ֤וֹם הָֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֖י שַׁבָּתֽוֹן׃
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the LORD [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.
By bringing these agricultural props, we signify it’s harvest time or in our day, ‘ornamental gourd season.’ We are grateful for the bounty we have in the fall. If that sounds like American Thanksgiving you would be right for at least according to an accepted modern legend, Benjamin Franklin wanted to model our Thanksgiving on Sukkot. But, it would seem that simply having these things – the arbah minim the four species of etrog , lulav, arravot and hadass as simanim or symbols would be enough. Or maybe we should eat them. (Although I wouldn’t recommend that). But instead we hold them together, say the Bracha:
ברוך אתה ה‘ אלקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על נטילת לולב
Blessed are you our God ,King of the universe who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us about taking the lulav.
And then we do this incredible full body choreography of waving or shaking the lulav. So why do we do that and how does it relate to the idea of Gd hanging out with us in our Sukkah? Certainly a popular idea is that as we wave the lulav in all directions to signify as the children’s song goes:
HaShem is here, HaShem is there, HaShem is truly everywhere. Up, up, down, down, right , left and all around… I am not implying that this is an improper way to understand the ritual. But I’d like to suggest a way to combine the ideas of the Sukkah— the ideas of the Clouds of Glory and God in the form of the Shekhina coming closer to us and the lulav. Certainly the idea of God’s omnipresence could suffice here, but let’s broaden it a little to beyond our understanding of Gd right at this moment right in this space. The Sukkah signifies the Sukkah of the past, the sukkah of the present and it the hope of a sukkah of the future where HaShem will dwell in the ultimate sukkah, the Beit HaMikdash and provide care, security and shade for all of us with the ultimate redemption .This moves in all temporal possibilities and affords the opportunity to bring that feeling to closeness- holiness and sanctity— now at this moment, in our everyday lives in our present, in the way we prepare for the future and also how we see our past. Waving the lulav then can go beyond time and infuse all time with holiness, sanctity and ultimate service and love of Gd.
So when we bring the Arba minim, the four species again throughout the holiday, I would like to suggest that in addition to keeping in mind the traditional idea that the process of waving the lulav in all directions signifies God’s is everywhere in general,, we can also have the kavannah, the intention with this holy choreography to see God’s presence, the Shekhinah, in our own lives-now in the present, in the past and in the future.
So standing, facing east, with the etrog in your left hand the lulav in your right hand—with the aravot, the willows on the left of the spine of the lulav, the haddasot, the myrtles on the right:
Shake it front of you:
Don’t miss what is Godly that is right in front of you. The ordinary in your life also has holiness.
Shake it to the right:
The ‘right’ way, the normal or usual path also has opportunities for holiness and specialness.
Shake it behind or in back of you:
Events in our past can also be seen through the lens of holiness.
Shake it to the left:
The less likely route—the left turn- may bring a greater Gd focus as it is not familiar.
Shake it up above :
Make an effort to elevate your daily activities with sanctity.
Shake it down—towards your feet:
And may all your steps on earth can be filled with purpose and Godliness.