The How and Why of Sukkot

Jewish festival of Sukkot. Traditional symbols (The four species): Etrog, lulav, hadas, arava.For Jewish communities around the world, especially in Israel, Sukkot is the happiest week on the calendar. For Israeli kids, it means a week off from school; for families it means visiting relatives and friends and eating in each other’s sukkahs; for nature lovers it’s a good excuse to sleep outside. Although it receives much less press, this holiday is more fun than Passover and Chanukah. In fact, it is known in Hebrew as zman sim-chataynu – time of our joy.

We have all learned that we build a sukkah to represent the temporary structures that the Children of Israel lived in as they crossed the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. That is HOW we celebrate this holiday, but not WHY.
In the Book of Leviticus, where we first learn about Sukkot, it says “When you gather in the crop of your land, you shall celebrate a festival for seven days.” The Children of Israel received this commandment while they were schlepping through the desert—almost 40 years before they reached the Land of Israel. It would be another few decades before they completely conquered the land and got around to planting fields and orchards, so this mention of the festival is only a foreshadowing of what was to come.
But the positive forecast inspired our ancestors to trudge on. G-d assured the Israel-ites that they would someday have a harvest big enough to warrant a full week of rejoicing.
In Deuteronomy, when Sukkot is mentioned again, it says, “You shall be happy on your festival, together with all of your community. G-d will bless all of your undertakings and all the works of your hands and you shall have nothing but joy.” It must have seemed somewhat strange to the hot, weary travelers that G-d was giving them a commandment “to be happy” but it gave them confidence to believe in the good fortune that lay ahead.
Today, on Sukkot 5780, we look at the State of Israel—and at the worldwide Jewish community— and see that G-d’s forecast was accurate. The Jewish People’s collective planting and sowing have yielded an impressive harvest. Our accomplishments and opportunities are abundant.
HOW are we supposed to celebrate our great fortune? G-d tells us “You shall stay in booths, so that generations will know that when I took you from Egypt, I caused the children of Israel to stay in booths.” We show our joy for the present moment by remembering the past. We express our gratitude for where we are by acknowledging the challenges along the path we took to get here.
As we enjoy the fun of Sukkot, let’s remember to celebrate the fruits of our labor, trust in the promise of good things ahead, and continue on our Jewish journey with passion and excitement.
DEBBIE MELINE is the Director of the Center for Jewish Life at the Merage JCC and a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.

 

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