The Jewish calendar does not let up in the month of Tishrei. After the whirlwind of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we immediately launch into Sukkot and then conclude with Simhat Torah when we celebrate the renewal of the Torah reading cycle.
Sukkot begins in a few short days. On Sunday evening, the tradition urges us to leave our homes and spend as much as time as possible in temporary shelters (sukkot). The most important requirement of these sukkot is that their roofs be porous enough to allow us to see the stars in the nighttime sky. The sukkah must also not be so sturdy, keeping the wind and rain out.
Its defining character is its flimsiness. It is not a house. A sukkah is a flawed structure.
The sukkah reminds us of the frailty of nature. It represents the booths in which the Israelites lived during their wanderings from Egypt to Sinai. Some suggest it symbolizes God’s presence in our lives.
Given that we just spent hours in synagogue we think that the Yom Kippur holiday better represents our connection to God. Sukkot, however, is the more representative of our holidays. It is about bringing God’s presence to the earth. Literally! We build these booths to remind us that God’s presence, while seemingly temporary and even fleeting, can be brought to this world with our own hands.
That is what we are building as we put up the boards of our sukkot.
On Sukkot we are supposed to invite as many guests as possible to share meals with us. On Shabbat evening we pray that God might protect us with a sukkat shalom—a sukkah of peace, but in truth we are supposed to create that very sukkah here and now. It is defined not by the flimsy walls surrounding us but instead by the friends we gather within our sukkah and then in the weeks that follow, in our warm and comfortable homes.
In fact, there is a custom that we invite ushpizin, honored and imaginary guests, to dine with us on this holiday. The tradition suggests seven for each of the holiday’s days: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Egalitarian versions often add: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Ruth, Esther, Miriam and Deborah to the Kabbalist’s mystical list. We invite our biblical ancestors and hope that their qualities will add to our celebrations.
We welcome Abraham and call to mind his compassion. We invite Isaac and pray that his strength might accompany us throughout the coming year.
As we approach yet another holiday, let us ask ourselves these questions. Who would I like to invite? Who among our ancestors would I like to welcome to my holiday meal? What questions were left unanswered? What teachings were left unsaid?
Who will receive this year’s invitation?
The essence of this holiday is the invitation. Even if you don’t build a sukkah this year, invite a friend over even if it is only for a cup of coffee or perhaps a cocktail. (Personally, I am uncorking some Finger Lake ciders.) Make this year’s holiday about welcoming others into your home.
Toast l’chaim. Wish each other chag samayach. Embrace family and friends.
That is the essential message of the holiday of Sukkot. We can build a sukkat shalom, a sukkah of peace, by wrapping our arms around each other. It begins with something as simple as an invitation.