Sukkot is the only holiday in the Torah that is referred to as “the time of our joy.” Even the Talmud insists after lengthy descriptions of the music, dancing and torchlit parades of Sukkot that “he who has not witnessed the rejoicing of the water-drawing ceremony on Sukkot (something we do not do since the Temple’s destruction) has, throughout the whole of his life, witnessed no real rejoicing.”
In many ways the sukkah is like a time machine. When we sit in this sketch of a home, we are transported to the desert where the Israelites wandered for forty years. We might remember that the rabbinic legend which says the sukkot the Israelites dwelt in were made from clouds God provided for them. We are also transported to Israel, where during the harvests the farmers would live out in their fields in little booths to be able to keep watch over their crops. As we sit in the flimsy sukkah, we might also be transported to Skid Row where people live in flimsy makeshift homes of boxes and scrap wood. We might think about the tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina, and how despite the walls we build, how vulnerable we really are. When we build a sukkah we remember that our strongest foundation lies in our relationships with each other as well as our deeds.
Sukkot is more than the reenactment of the Israelite’s wandering in the desert toward the Land of Promise. It is the acknowledgment that we are all wanderers in this world. We are all transients in the world’s ageless history, and when we erect a temporary sukkah, we are essentially nailing our tent pegs into the rich earth of eternity. We are acknowledging that we are transients, but we are simultaneously staking our faith in everlasting truth. When we realize the beauty and hope of Sukkot, we cannot help but rejoice.
At Temple Isaiah we end our Yom Kippur services by hammering a nail into a wooden board, symbolizing the time to begin building our sukkah. We link the day of atonement with the time of building as we launch into our new year with energy and commitment.
There is a custom that for each of the seven nights of Sukkot, we should invite one of the Ushpizin (Aramaic for ‘guests’), the holy guests, to enter our abode, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David. Each day of Sukkot, it is believed, all seven of these illustrious souls are present, but each takes a turn to lead the other six. They actually leave the Garden of Eden to partake in the Sukkot festivities with us. Some people recite a lengthy mystical invocation to welcome each of the guests each night. Some invite the guests every time they partake of a meal in their sukkah. Some Sephardic Jews have the custom of setting aside a beautifully decorated chair covered with luxurious cloth and holy books and this is where the guest’s presence is believed to dwell.
Each of the Ushpizin brings with him a special quality. Abraham brings love and kindness. Isaac brings restraint and personal strength. Jacob brings beauty and truth. Moses brings eternality and Torah. Aaron brings empathy and splendor. Joseph brings spiritual foundation and holiness. David brings the kingdom of heaven on earth. All this in our dewy huts! Some Jews also invite a series of seven female guests as well, including our foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Zipporah, Miriam and Deborah.
Begin your own Ushpizin custom. We know that not only our spiritual forefathers, but the people in our hearts and in our lives bring blessing to our dwelling-places. We want our Sukkah to be extra special, replete with the presence of all we love and who have inspired us. Consider whom you would like to invite if you could? Would it be a hero, a role model, a mentor, someone you love? It can be someone you miss or someone you see often, someone in this world or in the next, someone you know dearly or admire from afar.
It is written in the Zohar ~
“One must also gladden the poor, and the portion [that would otherwise have been set aside for these Ushpizin] guests should go to the poor. For if a person sits in the shadow of faith and invites those guests and does not give their portion [to the poor], they all remain distant from him…One should not say “I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and I shall give the leftovers to the poor.” Rather, the first of everything must be for one’s guests. If one gladdens his guests and satisfies them, God rejoices over him. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the others shower him…”
Let’s take these lofty sentiments to heart this season as well, and consider donating for every one of the ushpizin invited into the sukkah a meal to the poor, as our ushpizin can be nourished by love alone but people need nutritive substance that we have the ability and obligation to give. For every one of the ushpizin you invite, bring two canned food items to be put in our Sova collection bin, preferably one item that is a vegetable and one that has protein, or that you make a donation to Mazon.
How to build a sukkah:
A kosher Sukkah has at least two complete walls and a small part of a third wall. They can be any material that is strong enough to withstand wind. They should be at least forty inches high and not higher than 30 feet. The sukkah is still kosher if you use the side of a building. If you have a little enclave enclosed by two or three walls, you have it made!
The roof of a kosher sukkah must be made from material that grows from the ground, like branches or leaves. Unfinished boards cannot be wider than 15 inches. A Sukkah cannot be built under a tree using the still attached branches as roofing. The roof must be sufficiently covered to give more shade than sun during the daylight hours. Yet it should be sufficiently open so that the stars are visible through the roof at night.
Almost anything goes, keeping in mind that this space is designated as your ‘home’ for the next seven days, so it should be tended to lovingly. Many people hang fruit, vegetables, and flowers along with posters and strings of High Holiday cards interspersed with pinecones and berries.
Hag Samei’ach! We welcome the holiday of Sukkot. The beautiful sukkah reminds us that the earth is our dwelling place and we are God’s tenants. This is how the people lived in the desert before they reached the Promised Land. This is how the farmers lived in ancient Israel when they wanted to be close to their crops. We eat in our sukkah and pray in it to remember our connection both to the natural world and to the history of our people.
Whose mitzvot make us holy – for the
Mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.
We thank You O God, for the kindness you showed our ancestors.
When they worked so hard to plant and harvest their fields,
When they left their homes and lived in sukkot in times of harvest,
With Your help, the harvests were good; there was enough to eat.
As we visit the sukkah, we think of them. And we recall that earlier time,
We remember when our people wandered in the wilderness,
With no solid roof above their heads to protect them from rain and wind,
We thank you for our homes that provide us with comfort.
We thank you for bringing us to this time, as we recite our prayer:
Baruch Atah Adonai – We praise You, Adonai
For sustaining us to reach this
The four species of the lulav and etrog remind us of God’s gifts.
We hold them tightly to remind us that our world is precious.
The lulav is named for the palm branch. It is straight; it does not bend.
Like the lulav, Jews must ever walk tall and proud.
The etrog is sweetly scented; its color is a wonder to behold.
Like the etrog, our Jewish way of life is colorful and sweet.
The leaf of the willow has the shape of human lips.
The willow reminds us to choose our words with care.
The leaf of the myrtle had the shape of the human eye.
The myrtle reminds us to watch carefully, to learn from everything and everyone we see.
Baruch Atah Adonai – We praise You, Adonai
Whose mitzvot make us holy – for the
Mitzvah of holding and shaking
The lulav and etrog, the myrtle and willow.
As we shake the lulav in every direction, we learn that God’s Presence is everywhere.
In the air and in the breath. In the East and in the West.
In the heart and in the mouth. In the North and in the South.
In our hands and in our feet. In the West and in the East.
In our joys and in our hurt. In the South and in the North.
Praise and thank Adonai, for God is good;
God’s kindness lasts forever!