This time of year, the lovely crisp fall, is rich in Jewish holidays. It’s the Jewish New Year, among other things. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of the year beginning anew at this time – back to the days of new school supplies, stiff new leather shoes that gave me blisters, and lots of new adventures with a new teacher in a brand new grade.
So when Pat Segner asked me to talk to you today about the Jewish holidays, I agreed immediately – partly because I can never refuse Pat anything. And doing this service gave me a chance to explore more deeply a part of my own heritage that I mostly know through a child’s perspective. So in preparing for this service, doing research and thinking deeply, I can “grow up” my own understanding a bit – and then I get to share it with you.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish Calendar – the Day of Atonement. Sundown last night marked the end of the High Holidays which began eleven days ago with Rosh Hashonah, the birthday of the world.
Rosh Hashonah, like all Jewish holidays, also began at sundown – a week ago Wednesday. Jews around the world gathered in synagogues and temples to hear the sound of the shofar (the ram’s horn) and celebrate the beginning of a new year. Families ate sweet foods in hope of a sweet year to come: apples with honey; round challah bread, which symbolizes the cycle of life; honey cake; and tsimmes, a luscious casserole of carrots, sweet potatoes and dried fruits.
Rosh Hashonah also ushers in the Days of Awe: ten days of repentance, in which Jews examine their actions of the previous year, make amends for wrongdoing, and ask for forgiveness – first from the people they’ve harmed, and only then from God.
The image that Judaism uses at this time of year is the Book of Life, in which God inscribes the name of every person who will live in the coming year. According to tradition, on Rosh Hashonah God decides who will live and who will die, based on their actions during the previous year. The book, however, remains open for ten days, and those who sincerely repent their moral lapses can sway God’s hand to add their names. On Yom Kippur, the last of the Days of Awe, the Book of Life is sealed.
All day yesterday, Jews around the world fasted, taking no food or water from sundown Friday to sundown last night. Many went to the synagogue, to hear the Kol Nidre prayer, with Aramaic words set to a moving traditional melody. They prayed for forgiveness for everyone, secure in the knowledge that God will bless all who truly work to repair the harm they’ve done and promise to do better in the coming year.
Most of you are probably familiar with these holidays, from Jewish friends, books, or other sources. If you’re puzzled by the way I say the names, let me explain: when I was a kid, I learned Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European Jews from whom I am descended. And although I didn’t grow up in a very observant household, everything I learned then about Judaism had a Yiddish accent to it. So I pronounce the Hebrew names of these holidays with that Yiddish accent, which is different from the way they’re pronounced in Israel. So I say Rosh HaSHOneh instead of Rohsh HashohNAH, and Yom KIPper instead of Yahm KiPOOR. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
So with one pronunciation or another, you know something about the High Holidays just past.
But this coming Wednesday, at sundown, begins a Jewish holiday that most of you have probably never heard of: Sukkos, or Sue-COAT, the feast of the huts. Right now, all over the world, Jews are building small rustic shelters called Sukkahs in suburban back yards, on city balconies, even up on the roof. For a week, these tiny, fragile shacks will be their homes.
Like everything else in Jewish life, there are rules about the Sukkah. It must be built outdoors, under the open sky. It must have at least three walls, although they don’t have to be solid. The walls can be made of wood, of canvas stretched over PVC pipe, or a number of other materials. The Sukkah must be sturdy enough not to move in the wind, but it’s actually supposed to be rather flimsy – a temporary shelter. But it must be large enough for the family to have their meals there, and maybe even sleep there.
The most important part of the Sukkah is the roof. It must be made of natural materials, loosely woven or placed so that you can see the sky through it when you’re sitting inside, but not so open that there’s more sunlight than shade in the Sukkah. This covering has the delicious name of skhakh, which I think may be hard even for Jews to pronounce. Skhakh can be made of tree branches, bamboo, corn stalks, two-by-fours – anything that once grew from the ground and has been cut off. It should let the rain in, and the starlight.
Many families decorate their Sukkahs with colorful art work and string lights around the inside. They put tables and chairs in the Sukkah, and sometimes rugs and sleeping bags – because you’re supposed to spend as much time as possible in the Sukkah for the entire week of the holiday. Eat your meals there. Sleep there, too, unless it’s too cold or raining. Invite guests to join you, sing songs, tell stories. Become, for seven days, a dweller in a temporary shelter.
I’ve loved this idea ever since I was a kid. I was always trying to persuade my parents to build a Sukkah in our tiny city back yard. Sadly, I could never talk them into it. But in our classrooms right now, our religious education kids are constructing models of Sukkahs.
It’s also customary to hang seasonal fruits and vegetables inside the Sukkah. In the U.S., Jews often use the gourds and tiny colorful corn stalks that appear in markets in the fall. If this reminds you of Thanksgiving, you’re on the right track.
Because Sukkos is a harvest holiday. Like Thanksgiving, like Harvest Home, it celebrates the gathering in of the fruits of the earth, with gratitude for the abundance that sustains us.
It’s thought that the Sukkah itself harkens back to the small temporary huts built in the fields during harvest time, so the workers could make the most of the shortening days and not waste time traveling back and forth to their homes. Make hay while the sun shines.
Over time, the Sukkah was also associated with the temporary shelters made by the Israelites during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. During that time of unsettled, nomadic life – according to the Torah – all their sustenance came directly from God. So appreciation of the gifts of life, and gratitude for the natural world, are a deeply rooted part of this holiday.
There are a lot more customs around Sukkos – some of them quite unusual. If you’re interested in learning more about this holiday, or in discussing some of the ideas in this sermon, I’ll be leading the Forum after the service. We can look at the models of Sukkahs as well.
When I started doing research for this service, I was surprised by how close in time Sukkos was to Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. Was it only this year, I wondered? But no, Sukkos always begins five days after the Day of Atonement.
That got me thinking about the sequence of these holidays. Five days after an extended period of deep thought, asking forgiveness, and finally fasting and prayer – and suddenly there’s a week that’s known as Z’man Simchataynu, the season of our rejoicing. In fact, Sukkos is the only holiday of the Jewish year in which we are commanded to rejoice. What’s going on here?
Imagine with me.
It’s the night of Yom Kippur, like last night. It’s been a very long, very emotional day in the synagogue. We’ve fasted, and we feel it. We gather with family and friends, weak, tired, but happy, to slake our thirst and feed our hunger – together. Despite our shortcomings, despite our flaws, we are still here, still with work to do and love to give. We imagine our names, written in letters of gold in the vast Book of Life. We’ve encountered the fragility of life, in sorrow, and have made it through to another year. We are grateful, and humble, and joyous.
And we are human. So very likely, within a day or two, as we go back to work, to school, to ordinary life, we start to get a little bit careless. Or even arrogant. We start to take life for granted again. We forget our humility, and start to think – again – that that we’re in control of our lives. We forget our gratitude, and become impatient – again. We forget our joy, and begin – again – to focus on our petty grievances.
So soon! But this God the Jews envision is a pretty patient God, who understands us. Who knows we need to be reminded.
So just when we’re in danger of slipping back into all our old careless ways, along comes Sukkos, to give us another encounter with fragility, with the temporary nature of life. The last encounter was in sorrow. This one will be in joy.
Imagine that it’s the first night of Sukkos, and you and your family sit down to dinner in your Sukkah. The tiny lights you strung around the top are lit, and the traditional candles as well, and you recite the blessings for the holiday. You’ve got that special feeling of sitting outdoors, with the evening breeze stirring the skhakh on top of this temporary shelter. It’s cool now, and the fragrance of the food mixes with the sharp scents of falling leaves, that unmistakable smell of autumn. You look up through the skhakh and see the first stars appear.
You know your solid, dependable house is right nearby. But for now, for the next seven days, this is your real home. Tonight you don’t seem to need all the stuff that’s piled up in those rooms where you usually live. Here, in this little hut, you have air, food, drink, loved ones – everything you need for life, and a good life at that. You can see the shining eyes of the kids, excited to be camping in their own back yard. You won’t have to nag them to go to sleep tonight. It’s an adventure, and it’s home. The wind suddenly whips around the Sukkah walls, and you wrap your sweater a little tighter around you.
And gratitude, and humility, and joy come back to you, in a new way.
For this is the world, the real world: not the one you imagine most of the year, where you’re the boss of everyone, and only you can make things happen, and life is complicated. And you worry about security, and the future, and your to-do list.
But in the Sukkah, all that fades away. Somehow, under the night sky, you understand something different about life. You see that, although you eat the fruits of the harvest, you didn’t make them grow. Even the vegetables from your own garden, which you tended, didn’t come solely from your own work. It’s clearer now, the way life really works. Not just for the plants, but for you as well: you’re at the mercy of the wind and the weather, and somehow you just know that at the heart of it all, there is mercy.
For you can feel, feel in your blood and your bones, how fragile life is, and what a gift it is.
* * *
To me, this is the deep message of the Sukkah: nothing is guaranteed, and everything is given.
In the wilderness, the Israelites realized their complete dependence on God. They had no farms, no homes, no livelihood – they didn’t even know where they were going. And yet they were sustained.
So are we. We think it’s because of our plans, but sometimes I think it’s in spite of them. We have no ultimate power: life and death are out of our hands.
As we experienced this week, as we experience over and over again, lives end suddenly, and nothing we can do can change that. We can console each other, wrap ourselves in each other’s arms, but it’s a temporary shelter. Our bodies are a temporary shelter. Perhaps the world is, as well.
Yet Life persists, and we each thrive in our season. And the mystery of all this is what my ancestors called God.
In their wisdom, they gave us the feast of the temporary shelters. To help us find peace, and joy, in this mystery we never really fathom.
~ Beverly Feldt