A Unique Look at the Holiday of Sukkot
Sukkot as a Spaceship: Perspective
Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection of the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in a foliage-covered booth (known as a sukkah) and by taking the “Four Kinds” (arba minim), four special species of vegetation.
Earthrise is a photograph of the earth taken in 1968, from lunar orbit of the Apollo 8 mission. Called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken,” it served as a harbinger of the environmental movement. In the words of the photographer, “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the earth.”
This might seem like a surprising way to introduce a write-up about Sukkot, the Jewish holiday that is coming up around the corner.
In fact, however, the Sukkah (the temporary dwelling place often translated as “booth”) at the heart of the holiday of Sukkot is a lot like the spacecraft from which the famed picture was taken. Both the Sukkah and the spacecraft are portals- contexts- by which people can gain perspective on their lives and surroundings.To be more specific, both Sukkah and spacecraft can function to broaden horizons and, thereby, reframe what persons see and experience.
A contemporary exponent of Judaism, Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses, writes: “The holiday of Sukkot is all about fragility. A sukkah is a temporary shelter with a roof that allows us to see the sky and the stars. The house is flimsy but during Sukkot we try to live in it, eat in it, even sleep in it during the eight-day festival. It presents an opportunity to remember our fragility.”
The spacecraft from which the famed picture was taken allowed people to see beyond their limited horizons, to see both the sky and the stars as well as themselves, in a new light. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “a photograph of the Earth / Taken coming back from the Moon” was stunning precisely because “you couldn’t see a city / On that marbled bowling ball / Or a forest or a highway / Or me here least of all …”; it broadened her outlook about her humanity and place on earth.
Just as a spacecraft can transport passengers across the physical universe, so too a Sukkah can transport “passengers” across the universe of the human spirit. The Sukkot holiday helps us get in touch with diverse emotions, from sorrow to fear to joy and acceptance, as we undertake a pilgrimage of the soul: the rabbis, centuries ago, designated this time as zman simchatenu, or “the season of our joy.” Even so, they also designated Ecclesiastes as the text to read. In selecting an existential text which centers human finitude, they sought to help us face our fears- and face reality- about the limits and contours of the time we have on this earth. They called for us to reside in temporary dwelling places (not glamping!) so as to get in touch with our bodies and the soil, towards a temporarily wild way of living, beyond the normal accoutrements we supply ourselves in our regular lives. They recommended that we invite others (ushpizin) into our spaces, towards more and deeper human connections, with the winter months ahead.
These practices of Sukkot give us the perspective we need to reorient to the shifting verities of our lives and world. May we have the courage to take this time to see clearly- and reflect on what we see- in our lives and the world around us, and act on what we learn.
As we enter the sukkah to explore, who knows what we might discover?
• With all this in mind, in the days to come, how can we gain perspective even as we help others around us gain perspective?
• How can we recognize and help others recognize what really matters in our time on earth?
• How can we remain joyful and engaged- acting on our and others’ needs for shelter?
• How can we begin to truly “see the sky and the stars”- in our physical universe, and in our lives?