“The invitation of guests, strangers, ‘outsiders’, into one’s home or one’s community is a habitual part of Jewish social living, but it receives a special emphasis during Sukkot.”
Read on to discover its symbolic layers and practical implications.
Sukkot is a festival rich in symbolism.
Originally it was the third agricultural holiday of the Biblical year, an autumn celebration of the ingathering of produce before winter arrives. After Pesach and its week-long celebration of spring and renewal and liberation, there was the fleeting midsummer festival of Shavuot, marking the end of the grain harvest – to which a transformative collective memory, the Giving of the Torah, was later added.
And at the end of the agricultural cycle came another week-long celebration – which over time allowed the temporary huts or ‘booths’ (sukkot) of agricultural workers to be linked imaginatively with the temporary dwellings (also called sukkot) described in the great Biblical narrative of the Israelites’ 40-year mythic journey through the wilderness towards a distant ‘promised land’.
This is part of what one might call the Jewish genius: over time, the natural agricultural cycle of a Middle-Eastern tribe is overlaid with historical memories, and then creatively opened out into having a timeless theological meaning: God’s ‘creation’ of a people is linked to God’s ‘revelation’ to a people, which is then linked to God’s forthcoming ‘redemption’ of a people.
This kind of religious creativity has sustained the Jewish people for two millennia.
Where is such religious and spiritual creativity today?
Are we able to add our own meanings and messages to the symbolism of these festivals?
My own interest lies in finding ways of allowing these traditional festivals, rituals and traditions to take on a psychological and existential dimension – to find ways of connecting the tradition to our own lives and experiences.
I take my cue from the great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, scribbling a new theology on postcards which he sent back home from the First War trenches where he was serving. He focused on the symbolism of the sukkah - the temporary shelter that tradition dictates should be constructed next to one’s home, where one eats and (if possible) sleeps, for the duration of the festival. From the midst of the madness of war, where any shelter for his fellow soldiers would feel temporary and fragile, Rosenzweig saw the festival of Sukkot as symbolising something vital for his diasporic people – but also something with a universal resonance:
“The Feast of Booths is the feast of both wanderings and rest. In memory of those long wanderings of the past which finally led to rest, the members of the family do not have their merry meal in the familiar rooms of the house but under a roof which is quickly constructed, a makeshift roof with heaven shining through the gaps. This serves to remind the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, no matter how temptingly it beckons to rest and unimperilled living, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries.”
Thinking about the construction of the lowly sukkah, made of organic materials, branches and leaves, with a roof that one can see through to the stars at night, Rosenzweig glimpses the dramatic symbolic power of the ritual: as we dwell in the sukkah we realise the impermanence of all we build and hold dear. This, intuits Rosenzweig – and he could have no idea how prescient he was in bringing out this theme in Germany in the first quarter of the 20th century – is the meaning of being a diasporic people, always on the move, never securely ‘at home’ in any national state.
And as I read Rosenzweig, sensitising us to our transience, I also hear him inviting us to think of those for whom transience, wandering, is the norm and not merely an annual symbolic religious ritual.
In the midst of the greatest – and ongoing – displacement of refugees in Europe since the end of the Second World War, one of the major themes of Sukkot takes on an extra significance.
The invitation of guests, strangers, ‘outsiders’, into one’s home or one’s community is a habitual part of Jewish social living, but it receives a special emphasis during this festival.
One can understand this symbolically, as the Kabbalists of Tsefat did, who invited ushpizin (legendary guests) into their sukkah each day: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses , Aaron, David. In our more egalitarian times the seven invited ‘guests’ often include the matriarchs and other Biblical women. But the festival’s emphasis on hospitality deserves a more tangible manifestation. There are many projects and charities which are working with this influx of refugees into our midst – and Sukkot is the festival that asks us to look out beyond the security of our own lives and towards the fragility of others’ lives. Sukkot asks us to hold the creative tension between a symbolic reading of its rituals and seeming them as holding an ethical imperative which can only be fulfilled through our actions.
At an existential level it asks us: how much insecurity can you bear in your life? How much awareness of the randomness, the sheer contingency and unpredictability of life can you manage? How much do you want to be reminded of the fragility of our bodies, our minds, our social structures?
How prepared are we to recognise the innate vulnerability grafted into the carefully constructed fabric of our daily lives?
Religious traditions can seem to offer us some respite from the unsettling reality of inhabiting bodies that gradually fail us, and societies where our sense of wellbeing is dependent so often on social, political and financial forces outside our control. Religions attempt to created a meaningful world for believers to inhabit. They seek to keep existential terror at bay – the fear that our lives have no inherent meaning; that life is, in Thomas Hobbes’s words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”; and that we avoid this fate more by luck than our own good judgement.
Sukkot as a festival asks us to inhabit a daring paradox: to acknowledge the impermanence and fragility of life, and to celebrate that very life. Celebrate rather than fear. Celebrate rather than live in denial. Celebrate rather than blame others, or ourselves, for not making our lives more secure. Security comes through being able to give things up, not hold on to them as if they (and we) will live forever. Security comes through refining our sensitivity to our human fragility and transience, and learning what to hold on to and what to let go of.
This is the psychological and spiritual task of Sukkot: to celebrate those moments of rest and fulfilment when we can appreciate what we have achieved, what we have ‘harvested’ in our lives – and then move on to the next stage of our journey, secure in the knowledge that what Rosenzweig called “unimperilled living” is a fantasy we need to leave behind us; and secure in our awareness that as we journey on as a people our task is to reach out a hand to those whose lives are imperilled by the harshness built into life itself.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com