Sukkot: Joy and Community

By Reb David

DEM-Glam-Shot1Sukkot, the Jewish festival of thanksgiving that we celebrate this year from September 18-26, 2013, is called zman simchateinu — season of our joy.  Of all the joyful times in the Jewish liturgical calendar, Sukkot is understood to be the most joyful of all.  Sukkot is a time of gratitude for the harvest, a spiritual and physical release from the rigors of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and a time of partying and delighting in community just for its own sake.

In ancient Israel, Sukkot was one of the three times of the year that Jews make pilgrimage to Jerusalem — to reconnect, be counted, offer the best of their harvests, pay taxes and rejoice before God.  Like many Jewish festivals, however, Sukkot offers universal themes for Jews and non-Jews alike.  We see one of these themes in the sukkah, the outdoor hut without a full roof, in which Jews ceremonially take meals during Sukkot.  Biblically, the sukkah reminds that Jews were nomads in the desert and preserved in these flimsy huts.  Spiritually, Rabbi Alan Lew’s masterpiece, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, understands Sukkot as a natural consequence of our High Holidays release from “sin” and the constraining fixity of our lives.  We emerge from Yom Kippur into a sukkah, an outdoor place representing vulnerability and impermanence, precisely to be joyful and grateful in the vulnerability and impermanence that are the essential nature of our lives.  A sukkah reminds us that we do not need all the fixity and protections that we sometimes think we need: acquisitiveness and fixity can give way to simplicity and flow; in that simplicity and flow, there can be deep and abiding joy.

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Sukkot also reminds that Jews are called toward holiness, together with fellow journeyers of our cousin faiths and communities. The Kiddush for Sukkot (and all Jewish festivals) begs the question of whether Sukkot and its themes of joy, impermanence and gratitude are “for” Jews or “for” everyone.  Perhaps the answer is “both/and.”

In Hebrew, the traditional text of the festival Kuddish includes אשר בחר בנו מכל עם ורוממנו מכל לשון וקדשנו במצותיו (asher bachar banu mi‘kol am, v’romemanu mi‘kol lashon v’kidshanu b’mitzvotav): “You chose us from other nations, and lifted us up from every tongue, and made us holy in Your connecting commandments.”  Sukkot is a Jewish festival reflecting Jewish history and Jewish self-understanding, but understandably some Jews hear in this traditional text an exclusivity, superiority and triumphalism that can feel uncomfortable and perhaps undeserved.  After all, have our choices truly made us so lofty?  For these reasons, some Jews subtly change the Kiddush to say אשר בחר בנו עם כל עם ורוממנו עם כל לשון וקדשנו במצותיו (asher bachar banu im kol am, v’romemanu im kol lashon v’kidshanu b’mitzvotav): “You chose us with other nations, and lifted us up with every tongue, and made us holy in Your connecting commandments.”

This tiny change from mi’kol (“from all”) to im kol (“with all”) — just reversing two letters in transliterated English from mi to im — can make a world of difference in how Jews describe ourselves in relation to the world: unique, but not most lofty.

For Sukkot, this subtle shift is especially poignant.  The Hebrew for “with” (עם / im) begins with the letter ayin (ע), whose numerological value is 70.  In ancient Jewish thought, there were 70 nations among the world, of which Jews were just one.  And in Sukkot’s ancient rituals, there were a total of 70 animal sacrifices that corresponded with the 70 nations of the world.  On Sukkot, precisely by coming into community within the envelope of impermanence, gratitude and joy, we pray not only for ourselves but for all the peoples of the Earth (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkot 52b).  It is precisely allowing ourselves to shed excess fixity that makes us fitting vessels for channeling holiness and joy into the world.

So may it be on this Sukkot.  Chag sameach: may this Sukkot be a time of gratitude and joy for us all.

Join us for special celebrations in our Sukkah on September 20 and September 27, 2013.

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