Not Really Going Round in Circles: The Sukkot Deja Vu

As we return to Sukkot, the holiday of the cycle, it may seem like we have been here before. But, with each year, we are actually engaging more profoundly than ever.

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Etrogs for Sukkot.
Etrogs for Sukkot. Credit:

Do you ever feel like you are just going around in circles? Sukkot is one of those times, as we walk with the lulav in a circle during the daily services, once a day then, seven times on the seventh day of the holiday. This reaches its peak on Simchat Torah, when we dance for hours around the Torah scrolls, also in seven hakafot, or cycles. As I go around and around I think I have been here before - deja vu.

There is special power to the shape of a circle, and it is inherently connected with the Sukkot holiday. When we wave the lulav and etrog with the additional two species - arava and hadas - we also create a circle or a sphere around ourselves, waving in four directions, then up and down. Indeed the rabbis call Sukkot a chag, a Hebrew word which means cycle and is used for all holidays which come around once a year. But it is also used as a word on its own only to refer to Sukkot, not needing any qualifier. Sukkot is the holiday of the cycle and of the circle.

Sukkot, as fall turns into winter, is the annual inauguration of the daily prayer for rain, and in essence the service of the four species is a fertility rite. The sexual symbolism in the arrangement of the species is overt as we hold the lulav in one hand, aravot and hadasim bound on either side, and bring it close to the etrog held in the other hand, and wave them together in every direction as if to summon the clouds and rain. Just as these species need water so too the world needs water, the Talmud teaches us. Of course water is also a circle, as any child will recall from grade school pictures of the water cycle.

As we bring the rains, to renew fertility upon the planet and upon the land, we summon life. The earth is impregnated anew, the seeds sprout, and the browns return to green. They return, with new life every year. This is the season of the womb, that environment which originally surrounded us in water, that environment that kept us safe as we came into the world. The womb is alluded to in another mitzvah of the chag, the Sukkah. We relocate our lives into an environment of spirituality and faith in God. The dependence on rain in the religious sense is an issue of faith, our very life force in the balance as we celebrate and beseech God for his life giving gift of water.

The power of the circle is a feminine one. The cycle of the moon and the month is central for women, and definitive in the potential to bestow life. As we dance around the Torah in seven sets of so many circles we set our own orbit, we build of our womb so to speak. We bind ourselves to something we love and in doing so we conquer, as in the biblical story of Jericho, as a bride circling her groom. These are the deep connections that bind us, that provide meaning to our desire of life.

I would like to suggest that we are not simply going around in circles. Month by month, year by year, hakafa by hakafa, it may seem that we have been here before, but we are actually going deeper, going higher. It is not enough to only do something once, after one time we are not truly connected, not bound. The world has been going around seemingly forever, as Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. But life is not only about the new, it is about the profound and the meaningful, and that only comes from relationship, and connection. It is a secret of motherhood, the binding that can exist only as a result of the carrying of a child within, surrounding from without.

As we enter the winter, let it rain as if God has fallen in love with the world for the very first time, let us turn towards God and towards each other, binding ourselves to meaning, defining our orbits in ways that truly matter, building a "sukkat shalom," a sukkah of peace, for us and the world.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, and is a candidate for Jerusalem city council with the Yerushalmim party.

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