“Ki Va Moed,” proclaims the psalmist, “the appointed time has come!” [Ps. 102:14]
These three Hebrew words are often used to introduce the beginning of Shabbat, but they especially ring in my heart at this time of year, as we gather together to celebrate a New Year, and search our souls for ways to be better versions of ourselves in the year to come. I love this time, appointed in Torah, for us to step back and take stock. I love the energy in the synagogue and the spiritual work of teshuvah (changing ourselves for the better).
Yet with all the attention we rightly give to the High Holy Days, we often don’t remember that there is another, beautiful “appointed time” in this season: the festival of Sukkot. I know that you will probably read these words either right before, or sometime between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but let’s not forget about Sukkot.
Sukkot was the original Jewish High Holy Day. We know this because during Sukkot so many sacrifices were offered that it almost equaled the number of sacrifices for Passover, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur combined! That means that this was the time when our people most needed to feel close to God.
What is it about this holiday which made it so powerful for us?
One possibility is tied to the agricultural cycle. Sukkot is celebrated during the final harvest of the year in Israel. From the time of Sukkot all the way until Passover, nothing would grow in the land, so this final harvest had to last. Not knowing when, or even if, we would have fresh food again could have intensified the need for us to feel close to God as we faced an uncertain future.
The second approach comes from the rabbis, who connected the Three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Torah (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) to the primary narrative of our people: the Exodus from Egypt. Passover celebrates our escape from Egyptian slavery; Shavuot returns us to the Revelation at Mount Sinai; Sukkot places us in the Wilderness, during the forty-year journey to the Promised Land.
Our tradition does not teach us that we just rode off into the sunset after Egypt, or Sinai. The real world does not work that way. Freedom requires work, it is a commitment, it requires sacrifice, and it is deeply rewarding.
Enter Sukkot, or more specifically, a sukkah. During Sukkot we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah, a fragile hut with gaps in its roof. The rules for how to build a sukkah may seem a little odd. It only needs two walls, and must be strong enough to withstand normal winds, but not severe winds. The roof must be made of organic material, and not nailed down, with gaps to see the stars at night, and let some rain in if it rains. The rabbis teach that the sukkah is like the tents of the Israelites on their long journey to the Promised Land. This is important for two reasons. First, it reminds us that we too are on a journey, and that our Promise (the world as it is supposed to be) has yet to be achieved. Second, it reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility. In a sukkah the walls will not protect us from danger, and the roof will not keep out the weather. Instead, we learn to accept our vulnerability and recognize that ultimately, not even solid walls can protect us. It reminds is that while wealth is good, and solid walls can help us feel safe, ultimately the security and safety they provide are an illusion. So, for one week out of fifty-two, we leave all of that behind and discover that we can live in the sukkah with joy – and we can shelter in God’s Presence. We focus less on the material things and discover that we can live more deeply. This is a time for feasting and for hosting guests!
With all of this in mind, I’d like to invite you to extend your Holy Day season through Sukkot. If you have a sukkah try not just eating in it, but sleeping there too – and please do invite your friends and neighbors over for a nosh – especially if they do not have a sukkah of their own. And please do send us pictures! If you do not have a sukkah, no worries. You can come to the synagogue and eat in ours, or join a friend in their sukkah. And while it is probably too late to order a sukkah building kit for this year, if you are handy, you could try to build one on your own. I’d be happy to tell you how to make sure it is kosher if you wish.
Finally, I hope that you will join us for both Sukkot and Simchat Torah services and celebrations this year, so that we can all bring to life the words of the Psalmist: Ki va omeid!