Last Sukkot—which fell at the end of September, by the Gregorian calendar—I went home, to my childhood house, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where my parents still live. There are photos of me the day before the holiday in the backyard, poles and tarp in hand, as I helped build our family. In them, I’m smiling.
Several times, in this past year, I’ve looked at these photos and started at those smiles. I could hardly remember being that happy. And the fact that I had been less than a year since seemed especially dissonant. Only a month after those photos were taken, I was unexpectedly home again. And this time, it was less of a planned trip. In the wake of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue—less than a mile from the house in which I grew up—I felt a need to come home, to be with my home community in Pittsburgh. In the weeks and months that followed, even was I wasn’t actively sad, I felt so distant from the smiling person in the sukkah photos, that I could scarcely believe that she was me.
There is something exceedingly appropriate (if admittedly a little macabre) in the fact that this whole experience was refracted for me through images of Sukkot. Sukkot is often called Zman Simchatenu—the season of our joy—because, according to traditional Jewish law—we are specifically obligated to feel happy on this holiday. And yet, this is counterintuitive. For a week, we are traditionally obligated to abandon the normal things that tend to make us comfortable—a stable roof over our heads, protection from the elements—in favor of dwelling in vulnerability. And yet, in the midst of and by means of this, we are meant to experience the year’s peak of joy. The juxtaposition here can be jarring and overwhelming. When we go out of our way to make ourselves uncomfortable, how can we tap into that joy?
A look at one of the references to the holiday in the Torah can lend some insight here. Toward the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the just before Moses blesses the Jewish people and prepares to die, he instructs them:
“Every seventh year, the year set for the Sabbatical, at festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose, you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord, your God” (Deut. 31: 10-13).
It’s a striking commandment, made more striking by the fact that it’s the last that Moses gives. But the image it paints is one not only of learning the Torah, but of a coming together, an “ingathering,” as it were. And though there are three pilgrimage festivals—three times of the year that all of the Jewish people comes together—it is only on Sukkot that we have this experiential collective reading of our central text.
And those of us who celebrate the holiday on a yearly basis might connect to this. Even in the diaspora, ingathering of community is central tenant of Sukkot—perhaps more than any other festival. Radical hospitality is always a part of our tradition, but there is particular emphasis on inviting guests into the sukkah. We take this to such an extreme, that merely our contemporaneous guests are insufficient; custom dictates that we extend an invitation even to our ancient ancestors. Many formalize this into the ritual of reciting the Kabbalistic ushpizin prayer to figuratively welcome a different biblical guest into their individual sukkah on each day of the chag, and in recent years, some people have expanded this to include other guests: everyone from modern historical figures, to deceased family members, and even future descendants who don’t exist yet.
Clearly, this speaks to a transcendence in these communities. It’s no coincidence, then, that it’s particularly the image of a sukkah that Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai chooses as a vessel to discuss the cohesion of the Jewish people across time. In his poem “HaYehudim” (translated as “The Jews”), he writes:
“A Jewish man remembers the sukkah in his grandfather’s house
And the sukkah remembers for him
The wandering in the desert that remembers
The grace of youth and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments
And the gold of the Golden Calf and the thirst and the hunger
That remembers Egypt.”
In Amichai’s imagining, when something happens to one Jewish person across time, the entire Jewish people has access to it (by means of the sukkah) in a manner than transcends time and space, and certainly transcends any one Jewish person’s individual experience.
It’s also no coincidence that perhaps the other most ubiquitous symbols of the Sukkot holiday is blatantly about transcendence. Depending on who one asks, the lulav and etrog are either representative of the fact that G-d is everywhere, parts of a fertility ritual, or both. In all of these cases, they speak to something outside of our own experiences as individuals. There is something beyond us—beyond both our pain and triumphs—whether that something is an omnipresent G-d or simply the knowledge that there will be more people after us. Our experience is not all there is. None of us is alone.
And therefore, the transcendent nature of the community we build on this holiday, in the sukkah, gives us the structure and the stability that the dwelling itself lacks. And this, in turn, leads to resilience. So many aspects of our lives waver, and it can seem that the very foundations of them shake and topple as well. But Sukkot reminds us that there is a community across time and space that transcends that, underlies it. Relinquishing the creature comforts that so many of us are fortunate to have in our day-to-day lives highlights the notion that, for as important as they are, they are not all that matter. That ever-present sense of community remains no matter what happens in our individual lives, and that can lend us strength and resilience.
After the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, I was terrified that the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh would collapse, that it couldn’t possibly hold the weight of what had happened. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it always had, the community has continued to hold each other up, has become even more warm and embracing. I was home again, this year, for Yom Kippur and a few days after. As I walked around the neighborhood, I saw people laughing and smiling as they helped each other erect sukkahs in their front yards.
There is so much joy in that.
Danielle “Dani” Shira Plung is a new blogger this month on Jewish Values Online. She is a regular blogger for New Voices magazine, and has also written for Alma magazine. She studied in Israel at the Pardes Institute for about two years, and recently returned to the U.S. We welcome her voice to our website, and hope you enjoy her writing.
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There were many miracles that God performed during the Jews’ sojourn in the desert – the mann, the “ananim,” water spurting out from rocks, etc. Why on Sukkot do we focus on the most mundane and man-made aspect of God’s protection—the huts the Jews dwelt in?
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