The Theological Challenges of Sukkot for Diaspora Jews

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man and his children push a baby stroller with palm fronds to be used to build a sukkah in Israel, Sept. 28, 2012.Credit: AP

Our favorite Jewish holidays (at least in the Diaspora) are usually the ones that fit in nicely with our current modes of thinking and behavior patterns, which are easy to explain to outsiders, and which are filled with upbeat and inspirational messages for ourselves and our children.

That is what makes Sukkot a real challenge. Coming right after the High Holy Days, during which we were so inundated with Jewish substance that some of us feel the need to come up for a breath of secular air, we are commanded to build a hut in our backyard, take another day off from work or school, shake a bundle of willows, myrtles, palms, and a citron, and eat outside for a week. Couldn't this holiday wait at least until the World Series is over? Couldn't it be a little less weird?!

But of course, Sukkot cannot wait, because harvests do not wait. And in the Land from which this holiday derives, the rain won't wait much longer either.

And so we gather the wood and the schach, the plants and the decorations, and attempt to manifest three theological messages, all of which make me a little nervous.

The first message of Sukkot is that nature and the outside world - the smells and sights and sounds of the universe - are as central to Judaism as anything that goes on inside our heads. I am at heart an "inside" person. When I go outside, I want to be comfortable. I avoid tents and insects and bad weather whenever possible. And along comes this holiday, on which I am obligated to eat outside, unless the rain comes down so hard that my soup loses its taste; on which I am obligated to hammer nails and harvest bamboo for the covering of the sukkah; and say prayers over a palm branch, willow, myrtle – I, who can barely differentiate between a rose and a tulip - and am obligated to praise God daily for agricultural bounties which I personally never harvest, except when I venture out to a local orchard to pick apples during fall.

And yet, what I remember from my childhood experience of Sukkot is exactly all this - the physicality of it, the smell of the spilled wine mixing with the New England foliage in my congregational sukkah, the waving of the lulav and the bright lemon-yellow etrog. Once again, I am wrenched out of the cerebral self-searching of Yom Kippur and brought back to the earth, reminded of nature, and of God's creation of the physical world, and the need to bless it and take care of it. Without the challenge of Sukkot every year, the bamboo in my backyard would remain just a fast-growing nuisance, a part of that natural world too messy and uncertain and uncontrollable to pay much attention to.

The second message of Sukkot may be even harder, especially for those who are less “nature-phobic” than I. This message tells us that possessions mean nothing, that real estate is a sham, that the only reliable dwelling-place is a rickety hut in one's backyard. There is a wonderful children's book, “This Big Sukkah,” which tells the story of a poor family who can never invite their relatives over for a holiday meal because there is not enough room in their home. But one Sukkot, the father realizes that their backyard is bigger than their house, and so their sukkah, built quickly from borrowed materials, could be the largest one in the family. And from then on, every year, the poor family hosts all their relatives in the big sukkah. Like the symbolism of the plain pine box, but at a happier time, Sukkot reminds us of the absolute equality of rich and poor. Everyone's soup gets rained on; everyone's willow dies by the fifth or sixth or seventh day; everyone's sukkah is fragile and temporary and open to the winds and storms. It is a message we would rather not hear – we, in our protected, well-sheltered edifices - but it is an inescapable message, and Sukkot, this sometimes-overlooked holiday, is its Jewish vehicle.

The third message of Sukkot is that in addition to the natural world's centrality, and human being's ultimate vulnerability, the Jewish focal point is the Land of Israel. The harvest we honor is a Middle Eastern one; the rains we pray for on Shemini Atzeret (that extra day of holiday tacked on to Sukkot) are based on the timing of the rainy season's commencement in Israel, not here in the U.S. (a particular problem for Jewish communities south of the equator!). When it comes to Sukkot, and I say this strictly from a theological standpoint, we're sort of in the wrong place.

Jeremy Bernstein, in his book, “The Way Into Judaism and the Environment,” (Jewish Lights, 2008) discusses the issue of “place” in Judaism, and the transformation of Israel "from a virtual reality into a very concrete one.” Now that what Heinrich Heine called the "portable homeland" has once again become a real one, how do we continue to celebrate Sukkot in what is now a self-imposed exile? Yom Kippur is so universal we know we can be anywhere, but Sukkot is about the real earth and real bodies and a real land.

That, too, is a challenge for me. One of the most striking experiences for me when I first spent a year living in Israel was that so many people built sukkahs, even secular Israelis. It was part of the general cultural ambience. In my American suburb, where we build our sukkah every year, it is a neighborhood phenomenon. My Gentile neighbor peers over the backyard fence, intrigued and perplexed by this annual add-on to our home.

So why does Sukkot still matter to me, to us out here? Precisely because it is not a holiday of books. Instead, it calls out to all of us to protect our environment, to remember how easily it disintegrates and falls apart. It tells us that our possessions are temporary, and that our job for the rest of the year is to care for the comfort of others. And it reminds those of us who live in the Diaspora that our real home is elsewhere, as for a week, we live attuned to its seasonal rhythms and agricultural melodies. That land too, like the sukkah, is fragile and vulnerable, and subject to the storms of history and politics.

Sukkot, after all, reminds us that as Diaspora Jews we're always a little bit out of sync.