Just five days after Yom Kippur the holiday of Sukkot begins. As I write this article we are in the midst of this joyful holiday. After the many hours we spent together on Yom Kippur searching our souls and preparing to begin the new year is the perfect follow-up to the days of introspection.
Whereas the High Holy Days are days of contemplation and prayer, Sukkot is the holiday of doing: building a sukkah, taking the lulav and etrog and waving them with purpose, spending our days in the sukkah taking in the beauty of nature. The sukkah is a symbol of protection and, at the same time, of uncertainty.
The Israelites built for themselves a sukkah during their wanderings in the wilderness to protect themselves from nature’s elements. It represented a home in which people could gather and create a sense of family. Yet, the sukkah is not sturdy and hardly protects against the elements. The structure of the sukkah reminds us that life is full of vulnerability and that what happens to us in life is not always under our control.
Although we have been working hard during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to mend our ways and to start the new year on the right foot, Sukkot reminds us that unexpected things may, nevertheless, arise. For the Israelite farmers, Sukkot was an uncertain time. Although they were celebrating the fall harvest, their joy was always tempered by uncertainty as to whether enough rain would fall in the winter to ensure an abundant spring harvest. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read on Shabbat during Sukkot, instructs us that we should celebrate the present precisely because our future is uncertain.
Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains one makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given each of us for that is one’s portion (Ecclesiastes 5:17)
Thus, we conclude the holiday of Sukkot with Simchat Torah, a celebration of joy — joy for all that we have and joy for the sacred tradition that gives strength and meaning to our days here on earth. We read the Torah’s conclusion with the death of Moses and continue immediately with the reading of the beginning portion about the creation of the world — that is what Simchat Torah represents: a new beginning celebrated with exuberant joy.
As we begin this New Year, 5773, may it be a good beginning for all of us and may we celebrate the present moments of our lives fully.
Rabbi Jeffrey Bennett