The festival of Sukkot that begins this week is regarded by most secular American Jews as a "minor" holiday outside of the two or three days that they generally recognize as "high" holidays of the Jewish year.
This is, of course, a misconception, as Sukkot is, according to Jewish law and historical tradition, a very major date in the calendar. The name of the holiday refers to the outdoor dwellings that we are enjoined to build and live in for the length of the festival. In doing so, we are commemorating the wandering of the Children of Israel in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt.
Those who choose to omit this celebration from their schedules are missing out on one of the most cheerful events of the Jewish year. Those Jews who lament their inability to compete with Christmas and its ubiquitous trees need to realize that the job of erecting and decorating a sukkah — and smelling an etrog and shaking a lulav — brings as much pleasure to adults as it does to children. Though the climate of North America does not always cooperate with the requirements of a festival born in the Middle East, eating dinners under the stars at this time of year — and perhaps sleeping under a leafy roof for a night or two — is a treat for everyone.
But there is more to Sukkot than just entertainment. Like the widely observed Passover seder that is a time-travel formula disguised as a family get-together, the sukkahs we build are a way to identify with the fragility and richness of Jewish life throughout history. For one week a year, we have the opportunity to leave the solid edifices in which we reside and embrace the fact that our existence can sometimes be as shaky as a temporary hut. On these autumn evenings, the connections to our heritage, as well as to the Torah, whose laws have sheltered us even when our attempts to build foundations elsewhere did not, remain crystal-clear.
Have a festive and enjoyable Sukkot!