If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides must have loved Sukkot, the holiday in which we leave our houses for temporary huts called “sukkot” (the plural form of the word “sukkah”).
Maimonides was well-known for championing moderation and the “middle way.” I suspect that he would have seen his philosophy hard at work during this holiday.
Sukkot, which begins only 4 days after Yom Kippur ends, can be seen as an evolution of the High Holidays.
On Yom Kippur, the Torah tells us to fast and thus inflict hardship on our life-forces. By this, it means that we should suppress our physical, animal natures in an effort to strength our spiritual mindfulness. In contrast, on Sukkot we balance our physical and spiritual sides.
Sukkot is referred to as the Holiday of the Harvest, and the crops newly gathered during this season represent our bounty in the physical world. We might consider this bounty to be a product of our own success independent of the divine. To counter that line of thinking and reinforce the High Holidays’ emphasis on our need for divine forgiveness and support, we remove ourselves from physical security by going out to live in the sukkah, a relatively weak structure with only limited protection from the elements.
It is as if we are saying to God that we are still grateful toward him, that we haven’t walked away from Him now that he has granted us his forgiveness. Both literally and figuratively, we seek to remain in his house while we enjoy the blessings of the physical.
Interestingly, God himself seems to indicate that this divine focus is not meant for the entire year, by creating a holiday specifically dedicated to the concept of stopping. This of course is Shemini Atzeret, the holiday that immediately follows Sukkot.
This is a holiday without obligations, with no additional divine responsibilities or commandments aside from the standard requirements of a holiday. Sukkot has its huts, and Passover has its matzah, but Shemini Atzeret has nothing to speak of. It is simply a time to stop and think. It is this holiday that begins the return to the physical-focused mentality of the year.
Note that this doesn’t mean an abandonment of the spiritual, but rather a shifting of focus. During the High Holiday season, we focus on the spiritual world and attempt to bring it down to the physical. Following Shemini Atzeret, we return to examining the physical world in the hopes of elevating it to the spiritual.
The end-goal may be the same – a merging of the physical and spiritual — but the approaches are significantly different. The former is more akin to a sage espousing spiritual truths on a mountaintop, while the latter resembles Abraham’s efforts to engage the physical world while serving as a divine emissary.
This Abrahamitic approach to Sukkot is particularly appropriate since both the man and the holiday have a traditional connection to the notion of hospitality. Abraham is well-known for welcoming wayfarers, and Sukkot has a series of spiritual guests — the Ushpizim — that visit us during the holiday. It seems that the message here is that we should not be alone in our sukkot.
So, while the Jewish New Year is about harmony, Sukkot is about company. May we all find comfort in those with whom we share our homes, temporary or otherwise.