My favorite American holiday is Thanksgiving, and we are now in the midst of my favorite Jewish holiday, Sukkot; in many ways, they are versions of the same holiday. Sukkot (“booths” or “tabernacles”), is of the three biblically mandated festivals along with Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot, the latter two being celebrations of our freedom from slavery and the giving of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew bible) to the Jewish people. The sukkah is a flimsy structure, open to the wind and stars, and is so constructed and used during the seven days of the holiday to commemorate our temporary shelters during our wandering in the wilderness for 40 years after our liberation from Egyptian bondage. It is also an integral part of this autumn harvest festival, this “Jewish Thanksgiving,” in that it brings to mind the structures ancient Israelites slept in out in the fields during the harvest season.
During the seven days of this important holiday in which we find ourselves, we’re commanded to be mindful of our dependence upon nature and our partnership with it. Most of us are now far-removed from our agrarian roots, so it is all the more important to be mindful of where our food comes from and the web of nature and individuals who bring that food to our table, beginning with the procurement of seeds, the sowing of them, caring for crops, harvesting, transportation, and preparation of food. How many of us think, as we walk into Kroger or Meijer, how utterly dependent upon one another we are to survive? Sukkot brings us back to the basics, to remembering, to pondering this foundation of interdependence upon nature and each another.
We take our meals outdoors when we are able during this holiday, even sleeping outside if we’re so inclined, and we create opportunities to fulfill the commandment of hospitality, of receiving ushpizin, “guests,” symbolically figures from Jewish history such as Abraham and David, but in reality our neighbors and friends. In doing so, we slow down from the frenetic nature of quotidian life in order to once again become mindful, to truly encounter and acknowledge one another and the ephemeral nature of life as once again we stand in the midst of autumn as a segue into winter.
I pondered the nature of this holiday as I drove westward into the sunset yesterday on the Western Kentucky Parkway, the sun peeking below the clouds and bringing into sharp relief a gorgeous, 3-D panorama of orange-purple-red on the undersurfaces of those clouds. As I enjoyed the view, it was made all the sweeter for me knowing just how fleeting the sight would be. Perhaps such is an apt metaphor for this holiday and for life in general. We all dwell in fragile structures: our communities, our houses, our bodies themselves. This holiday reminds us to be attentive to all, to acknowledge one another as part of a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and to remember not only to welcome guests but that, no matter our station in life, citizenship status, or the material of our dwellings, that we, too are guests in this life and should behave as such: kind, courteous, and mindful of all those around us.
Chag sameach, a joyful holiday to you.