Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

Why We Celebrate Sukkot: A New Look

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One reason Sukkot is celebrated is to remind us that all life is transient. We live in huts to remind us that our houses are flimsy, our very existence is tenuous, everything is over in the cosmic blink of an eye. And like the shaky hut that can blow away or drown in a deluge, we depend on G-d for stability.

But why do we celebrate the holiday in the fall?

Many years ago when I was in grade school, we learned that Sukkot is to commemorate the huts the nascent Israelites used on leaving Egypt. Presumably, we lived in huts all 40 years, and if the holiday also commemorates leaving Egypt, then we should celebrate it in the spring.

We were told we celebrate it in the fall, when it is cooler, so the Goyim won’t say we are sitting outside to enjoy the weather. Indeed, growing up, I remember the Sukkah was surrounded by snow.

That was before global warming, however.

In Israel, Sukkot is celebrated right before the rainy season sets in – at a most pleasant time of the year, as it is now, in the US. So much for the original answer.

Here’s another question – Sukkot is also called Z’man Simchataynu– the holiday of our happiness; indeed we are commanded to rejoice! Leviticus 23:40; Deut. 16: 14-15). It’s also the Harvest Festival.

So, what do the three names (the holiday of transient-booths – which should generate nervousness and fear, the harvest holiday, and the rejoicing holiday), have to do with each other?

Here’s another question:

How can one rejoice in transience, in insecurity, in the flimsiness of our material existence, in restriction?

It never ceases to amaze me how modern psych gets its grounding from Jewish practices.

Practicing gratitude, for example, is a big deal in new age psych. So try Modeh Ani, and for good measure, remember we express gratitude in that prayer “for G-d’s faith in us!” That’s a big deal.

Another new age practice is mindfulness. Live in the moment. During periods of temporariness – most people skimp, delay, defer.  Think of the last time you moved. You ordered in, ate little, and wore the same or grungy clothes.

So, here we have the message of Sukkot. We live in flimsy booths- we know it’s only for seven days – – and we decorate!! We eat festive meals. We dress for Yom Tov. We celebrate the moment.

And we look around. If it weren’t for the holiday we’d be indoors. We would miss the glory of the trees changing their garb, the magic of the colors changing before our very eyes, the gorgeousness of change.

Indeed, even in this time of change — the bane of most people (changing seasons, places we eat, the hour of darkness), we find beauty and majesty. And we rejoice in it.

And that is the message of Sukkot, and why it is celebrated in the fall – to rejoice in the possibilities produced by transience, the magnificence of metamorphosis, and the role of G-d in keeping our personal ships afloat.

Special thanks to Phil Silver and Ruth Hoffman of Greensboro NC for inspiring me to write this.

About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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