THIS FRAGILE, FUTILE LIFE OF SUKKOT
I’m a born optimist, but one of the topics discussed during Sukkot, which falls between October 12-19 this year, is the futility of life. As with so many teachings from the Jewish perspective, there is ultimately warmth and hope in this message. This may sound a bit grim, but the ultimate realization is that life would indeed be grim without the guidance of Torah, and the abiding love of the Almighty.
Sukkot, The “Feast of Huts” or “Feast of Tabernacles”, falls five days after Yom Kippur, the “heaviest” day in the Jewish sacred calendar. Sukkot is my favorite because it’s actually a time of renewal —with strings attached, of course. The symbol of the holiday is the “hut” itself, a temporary outdoor structure in which pious Jews gather, eat, pray, sometimes sleep (there is controversy about the where-to-sleep part) during the holiday.
This temporary structure, created under the stars, is fragile. It is simple, innocent, humble. It reminds us of how our ancestors may have lived eons ago, as they crossed the desert. As a
modern woman who reads the news, it also reminds me of the dire circumstances in which many people live today, especially in the ravaged horn of Africa, where families are devastated by drought, famine, and preventable disease. The little Sukkot hut under the stars commands our humility, and our gratitude, especially since Sukkot takes place during harvest, when our table overflows with the ripeness of grapes, wine, pomegranates, pumpkins, pears, apples and honey.
From the safety of my backyard, life seems good. From a sacred standpoint, the verdict for the new year, written on Rosh Hashanah, sealed on Yom Kippur, is actually manifested on the 7th day of Sukkot, called Hoshanah Rabbah. A passage which is often read and discussed during Sukkot is from the Book of Ecclesiastes, where Koheleth, sonof King David, declares this world “Utter futility!.” Such a contrast to the abundance of the harvest season, don’t you think?
One of my favorite reflections for Sukkoth is the gathering of the “4 Kinds” – four kinds of plants which symbolize our level of spiritual awareness. As with all things Jewish, there are centuries of interpretation to savor here. The offerings are a citron, a palm frond, myrtle branches, and willow branches. No doubt, these symbolic offerings have been gathered by Jews in this manner for many centuries.
One of the most poetic aspects of the discussion about the Sukkot offerings has to do with fragrance—whether or not the leaves and fruits
associated with these botanical offerings are fragrant. Some are—like the citron, or etrog. Some, like the lulac or palm frond, bear delicious
fruit (the date), but are not fragrant. The fragrance is associated with the mystical side of knowing the Divine, versus duty and obedience.
This sensual element is cherished in Jewish tradition, where we end each Sabbath with the smell of sweet spices from the Havdalah spice-box. Some people take the citron from the Sukkot holiday, stud it with cloves, pomander-style, and use it this way (as besamim, or spice for the Sabbath) throughout the year. And, it’s also okay to make candy or jam from the thick rind of the etrog. As is so often the case with Judaism, the bitter is made sweet. Marmalade from tears, as it were (sort of a Jewish version of making lemonade when life gives you lemons, perhaps).
This is a generous and abundant time of year, where the season of plenty is tempered with the reminder that each of us is fragile, and precious.