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Chol ha-Moed

October 19, 2019
18 Tishrei 5780

Sukkot IV (Chol ha-Moed)
Numbers 29:26 - 29:31

Dear Friends,

We are in the middle of the Sukkot holiday, the Festival of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles, approaching the end of an intense holiday period that began with Rosh Hashanah.  This week we planned to celebrate Sukkot on Wednesday evening and celebrate we did, along with rain and wind that can only be described as epic.

Sukkot is a holiday that is celebrated with joy and hospitality. It is the first of the pilgrimage festivals, and on it, we are commanded to build a hut and make it our home. Like the other pilgrimage festivals (Passover and Shavuot), it has a strong agricultural element. It is a harvest holiday when we celebrate the bounty of our harvest. The Pilgrims used Sukkot as a model upon which to base Thanksgiving.

As I mentioned, it is a joyous holiday. Whether it is joyous due to a good harvest or to a sense that we have begun the work of turning ourselves (a process begun over the High Holidays) is not clearly articulated. During the biblical period, it was the most important holiday, known simply as HaHag – The Holiday, or, to put it another way, The Pilgrimage. It was the time when the Israelites would come together to bring their offerings to the Temple.

There are three things that the Torah commands we do over this holiday: live in the Sukkah (or at the very least, eat our meals in the Sukkah); gather the four species (the lulav and the etrog); and rejoice over the holiday. Being told that it is a mitzvah to rejoice is an interesting idea, akin to the modern refrain “Don’t worry, be happy." The rabbis tell us not to eat in the Sukkah if it is raining, as they do not want to sully the joy of the holiday.

Personally, I love the fall, especially growing up in New York; it has always been my favorite time of year. Sukkot usually comes just as the weather is transitioning. It comes as a bracing reminder not to take our environment for granted as we eat meals outdoors beneath the canopy of a Sukkah. As long as I can remember, there has always been rain during the holiday; as soon as the rain ended, back into the Sukkah we went. There is something playful about the Sukkah -- something that connects us to our younger selves and unmitigated joy in being outdoors. That joy is extended by the aroma of the etrog and the tradition of welcoming guests into the Sukkah. Of course, we invite actual guests into the Sukkah, but we also invite the spirits of those we wish to honor into the Sukkah. Traditionally, we invite the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, but we welcome all those spirits whom we wish to emulate. As we begin a new year, we invite those who will guide us, through their example, to be our best selves.

In thinking about Sukkot as I wave the lulav and the etrog in all the directions, I find myself reminded that ritual has the capacity to root us in the reality of our lives. These strange rituals, done outdoors just as the seasons are changing, are a stark reminder, even in our urban environment, to respect the planet and all of its bounty. Why else would a Sukkah have to be built so that when we looked up at night we could see the sky and be reminded that we are all part of something greater?

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781