As Israel is spiraling seemingly out of control from the mounting effects of the coronavirus, it feels like Sukkot could not have come at a more perfect time.
Sukkot in Israel is typically an incredibly festive time. The entire nation is on vacation and people use this holiday break to visit friends and family, often spending hours together in their sukkahs, and to travel around the country, enjoying the beginning of the changing of the seasons.
But this year we are in lockdown. Our second one of the year. We are not permitted to travel more than one kilometer from our homes and a new law just past stipulating that we are not allowed to even visit other people’s sukkahs. Those who do are subject to a significant fine.
The whole situation right now feels stifling and restricting, overwhelming and, at times, too much to bear.
But as Sukkot nears, and I think about what Sukkot is really about, I feel like there could be a strong silver lining to this unwelcomed and unwanted situation.
Sukkot is unlike any other Jewish holiday in that its main feature is to simply dwell inside a modest, hand-built, outdoor structure (the sukkah) for seven straight days.
The mitzvah (commandment) is literally to situate ourselves within the space created by the walls of the sukkah and to eat there, drink there, and sleep there. We are also strongly encouraged to do all of the things we would normally do inside of our house inside the sukkah.
On the simplest level, we can understand the main mitzvah of Sukkot as simply being to park ourselves inside the sukkah as much as we can and leave the sukkah as little as we can. For seven days.
But most people don’t do that.
They may have meals in the sukkah and sleep in the sukkah, but they also want to get out and enjoy the free time they have by, as we said, visiting friends and family and going on tiyulim (trips) around the country.
But this year we can’t. It’s against the law in fact. Any place we would want to visit is either closed and/or beyond our one kilometer permitted zone of movement.
So this year we have no choice but to be at home and spend more time than we ever have inside our sukkahs.
But maybe, just maybe, this is what we the Jewish people, especially those in Israel, need to do at this time in order to more deeply focus on what Sukkot is all about and what it comes to teach us.
And maybe, just maybe the whole world needs us to as well.
You see, according to the mystical teachings of Judaism, the word sukkah in Hebrew has the numerical of 91, which is the combination of the numerical value of the holiest name of God as it is written in the Torah (26) and the numerical value of that name as it is recited out loud (65), since it is not permitted to actually pronounce that holiest of names.
This combination of the written and the spoken reflects the relationship between the inner and outer aspect of God’s holiest name and, by extension, the relationship between the inner and outer dimension of life as a whole.
You see, Judaism teaches us that we have a body (outer) and we have a soul (inner). And while both are essential to being alive and living fully in this world, we are instructed time and time again by the teachings of our tradition that it is the soul that needs to lead the body. This is because, while the body is consumed with satisfying its primal physical needs, the soul represents the higher purpose for what we were created for and what we are here to accomplish in the world.
This idea essentially translates into the major tenet of Judaism: live a life in which you think about others more than you think about yourself.
And we know that, in this exceedingly physical reality that we live in, it is very easy to forget this higher purpose and lofty ideal, to focus too much, if not solely, on our physical needs, and to even cross the line into fulfilling our lustful and destructive desires as well.
And then Sukkot comes along and we enter into and dwell in the sukkah and, after weeks of focusing on our personal development and improvement during the time leading up to and including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we finally have the time, before officially jumping into the new year, to simply sit and internalize all of the life teachings and spiritual messages this time of the year is meant to impart and instill in us.
Yes, we have the time to relax and to enjoy the holiday, but we also strongly encouraged to use this time to remember what life and living is all about, and to be aware of what happens to us as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a world, when we mix up our priorities. To realize that even if all we have is a simple hut to eat and sleep in, we can still feel like the wealthiest and most fulfilled people in the world, since real wealth and fulfillment comes from the knowing that we are striving to live a life where the soul leads the body and not the other way around.
And that is a message that we the Jewish people need to hear more than ever.
But it’s not a message just for us. It’s a message also for the entire world to hear, to contemplate and to carry into their day to day living.
And that’s why, of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot is looked at as being the most universal of them all. This is demonstrated by the fact that when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, during the seven days of Sukkot a total of seventy cows were offered as sacrifices on the altar in order to bring peace and prosperity and spiritual blessing, awareness and connection, to all the nations of the world which, according to the Torah, were originally seventy in number.
Today, we don’t have the Temple anymore and we don’t have those sacrifices. But we still have our simple sukkah. According to Hasidic thought, each and every sukkah is connected to Jerusalem, and we know that according to the prophet Isaiah Jerusalem is meant to be a house or prayer, of connection, of inspiration, for all of the nations. And this year we have the unique and tremendous opportunity to spend more time in our sukkah than we probably ever have before.
And whether we agree or disagree with the governmental decision to impose a second lockdown, whether it makes sense to us or makes us irate, maybe this is Divine Providence’s way of telling us that the best thing for us right now is to stay home and sit inside our sukkahs. Because as our world is being knocked around and beaten down by the Corona pandemic, by a string of destructive natural disasters and by aggressive social upheavals, we need more than ever to take pause and to hear the message of Sukkot. To contemplate the message of Sukkot. To internalize the message of Sukkot. And to share it, through example, with the entire world.
And, if we do, maybe, just maybe, the dark clouds that have descended on our world will be pushed away and reveal a brighter day for all of humanity.