Sukkot And Simplicity

Though our office manager at my synagogue was raised and educated as a Catholic, she has worked with us so long that she knows more about Judaism than some Jews I know. The other day, she reminded me of a funny photograph someone had taken at a Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) event in our pre-school some years ago. Our preschool staff had drawn a picture of the Kotel on a large piece of butcher block paper, and they hung it across a wall in the school. Families were encouraged to talk about prayers they would like to write, then write and tape them onto our imaginary Western Wall. This would give everyone a taste of Jerusalem while in America.

In the photograph, one of the young mothers is holding her three year old daughter in her arms, and her eyes are closed in a moment of blissful bonding and spiritual serenity. The little girl is looking quite happy as well, having just placed the prayer with her words “into” our Kotel. The camera catches the heartfelt words of the pre-schooler’s request to God:

“I want pizza.”

Having just completed the rigorous, heady theological obstacle course of the high holy days a mere day ago, I am looking forward to the mandated simplicity of the upcoming Sukkot holiday. Though its rituals can appear convoluted and arcane to the uninitiated, Sukkot is actually an opportunity to celebrate life and its simplest, most childlike pleasures and desires, such as a slice of pizza. The Torah makes this clear:

After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in you communities. You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

The rabbis of the Talmud understand both references to rejoicing in this passage to be prescriptive, not descriptive. The highly inclusive Sukkot festival is “mandatory party time”, requiring us to shuck all class differences, to transcend temporarily all states of loss and sadness, and to thank God for just being alive, for an entire week. I find the timing of Sukkot – during the Autumn harvest when everything around us is beginning to die or hibernate before the winter – to be instructive. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were opportunities for us to do deep introspection about life, death, mortality, and sin. After we’ve done all the wailing, self mortification, praying to be remembered for life, and breast beating about our imperfections, – and precisely when mortality kicks us in the face – we are commanded to simply rejoice and to rejoice simply.

My pre-school student had no problem being her tiny self by expressing her most basic desires which could easily be fulfilled with a quick trip to a local pizza joint. The beauty of Sukkot is the way in which, at one level, it replicates child-like simplicity by emphasizing celebration for celebration’s sake. It also replicates simplicity through an extensive liturgy that concretely focuses human supplication on necessities such as food, happiness and good weather. Motivated by its explanatory and intellectualizing tendency, Jewish tradition has certainly added complex, abstract religious elements to the meaning of Sukkot over many centuries. However, the plain meaning of the holiday in the Torah is pure gratitude to God for life, abundance, and happiness.

Religion is often hijacked by terrorists, authoritarians, and charlatans. As a result, some people often respond to its more primitive, child-like elements with derision, even revulsion. They condemn these aspects of belief and practice as dangerously anti-intellectual and slavish, and they insist upon religious discourse which is highly abstract and rarefied. Often, they insist upon throwing out the religious baby with the extremist bathwater, thus scuttling entirely five millennia of human spiritual creativity. I find this attitude about religion troubling because it willfully ignores the deep value of these elements to human wholeness and balance.

At times, we need to suspend our uptight adult tendency to be skeptical and brooding, so that we can reinvigorate our more playful, childlike capacity to view the world as a place of wonder, magic and joy. This is especially critical because we adults are so beset with pain and sorrow at times. One of my mentors, a preschool director with whom I worked, once explained to me that young children’s play is their work, because it teaches them to be engaged fully with the world. We adults need to allow our praying to be a form of play so that we can re-learn to engage fully with the world that God gave us. This is what Sukkot allows and asks us to do.

V’samachta b’chagekha. Be happy, kids, it’s Sukkot!

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.