The entire festival of Sukkot is designated as holy time, with special commandments — shaking the lulav and etrog, sitting or dwelling in a sukkah — to be performed throughout. Yet the first and last days of the festival are distinct from the interim days, which are considered both holy and ordinary.
It is this very in-between quality that is the essence of Sukkot. For Sukkot, more than any other holiday, reminds us of the human ability — indeed, the human necessity — to simultaneously hold and experience opposites. From its most well-known symbols and customs to its most esoteric and perplexing scriptural readings, Sukkot challenges us to recognize fragility and loss while we are simultaneously commanded to rejoice.
As we hold the lulav and etrog in hand, surrounded by a well-decorated sukkah, reminders of harvest and bounty, we take a last look at produce that will not be growing locally again for many months. For those of us who live in climates with distinctive seasons, this may be our last outdoor communal gathering until early spring. We feel a hint of the impending change of season. Exposed to the elements as we catch a glimpse of the stars through the sukkah's thatched roof, we are reminded how vulnerable we are to the variability of the natural world and the unpredictable world of human creation. We intentionally leave the security of our homes and remember, through re-enactment, the vulnerability of our ancestors as they wandered in the desert, between slavery and the Promised Land.
Three Pilgrimage Festivals
Each day of the holiday, we read a section of Torah focused on the sacrifices made by our ancestors to fulfill the obligations associated with Sukkot. And on this Shabbat, which falls on an in-between day of the holiday, we read one brief verse that references all three Pilgrimage Festivals. Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot were celebrated with trips to the Temple in Jerusalem and sacrifices. Most curiously, this single reference is found within the story of Moses' first ascent on Mount Sinai.
There, God is introduced as "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin — yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations." During his encounter with God, Moses receives the first set of commandments. This awe-inspiring moment — a moment of potential joy for the entire community — is fleeting; Moses descends with the commandments only to find the people with the Golden Calf they have built. In his anger, Moses smashes the tablets.
We read of fear and anger overriding trust and joy. And yet, we still hear the words of God's steadfastness and compassion ringing in our ears.
Created by God in God's image, we, too, can find ways to hold two seemingly disparate things at the same time. We can live with uncertainty and ambiguity, and still find a sense of peace and wholeness in ourselves and with the world.
Our lives, fleeting as mist, brief and unpredictable, challenge us to experience as much as we can, as fully as we can: to hold opposites while retaining our integrity, to cry bittersweet tears at a wedding or to laugh during shivah when recalling a humorous moment with the deceased.
And so, on Sukkot, we read of destruction, distractions and failures, as we fulfill the commandment to rejoice.
We celebrate the harvest without knowing what the next planting season holds. And we celebrate at the time of the fullness of the moon, as we know that it, too, in the continuous circle of nature, will wax and wane.
Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling, as well as adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.