Once again, the festival of Sukkot is passing me by.
We didn't celebrate Sukkot when I was growing up, although two of my brothers now build sukkot (lit. "booths" -- temporary shelters, roofed so you can see the stars) in their backyards every year, and leaf them with fronds from south Texas palms.
For many years after leaving Texas I didn't miss Sukkot; why would I miss a holiday I had never known? Lately, though, since I've started studying the wheel of the year (and since the Jewish rituals manuscript has come to occupy the front spot on my desk), I've been wanting to do the Sukkot thing.
Like Shavuot, Sukkot started out as a harvest festival, a time to bring harvest offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. (Some scholars argue the booths or tabernacles, the sukkot themselves, originated as temporary harvest shelters, so ancient Israelite farmers could live in their fields while they made the most of this abundant season.)
The Temple's long-gone, and I suspect most modern-day Jews a) don't farm and b) find the whole notion of ancient sacrificial Judaism a little off-putting. But there are other ways to see Sukkot, and as a holiday I think it holds a lot of potential. It's a harvest festival, a festival of Thanksgiving (without the slanted-American-history connotations of the Pilgrims story), and it's a great occasion to muse on food and shelter and to nurture feelings of gratitude towards our Source.
There's also a Biblical link between Sukkot and the Exodus from Mitzrayim (the Narrow Place): "On the fifteenth day of the seventh month shall be the Feast of Booths...for seven days you shall dwell in booths; every citizen of Israel shall dwell in booths so that your generations will know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt." (Leviticus 23:33-44.) Even if we don't actually dwell in our sukkot, building them and eating in them links us with our ancestors (literal or symbolic) who took brave steps out of comfortable captivity towards scary, but necessary, spiritual freedom.
I like the custom of inviting ushpizin, spiritual guests, to join one for a meal in the sukkah. (Traditional folks invite Biblical patriarchs; some feminists invite the matriarchs in addition or instead; others invite the spirits of grandparents or ancestors.) And then there's that whole cool lulav and etrog thing, where you shake the Four Species (willow, date palm, myrtle, and citron) in all six directions while blessing the Source from whom all blessings flow. It's the kind of thing I'd expect to see in a neo-pagan ritual, and I'm always tickled to find it in Judaism.
What I find most meaningful about Sukkot is that it takes intellectual lessons (our lives are impermanent; we are fragile beings in fragile dwellings, striving for balance with our world) and embodies them. Although I live in a house which I did not build myself, during Sukkot I can put my hands to building. Although I live under a roof which keeps out rain and snow (and when it doesn't, I call the roofer to fix it), during Sukkot I can eat meals under the sky. Although I often invite guests to join me for meals here, and I sometimes feel the remembered presence of my ancestors, during Sukkot I can invite guests both living and dead, mindfully and with intent.
Every year I mean to build a sukkah, and every year something gets in the way and I let the idea lapse. I'm starting to think I'm missing an opportunity for something really cool here, though. Sukkot involves carpentry (we like carpentry in my house), food and hospitality (it's a rare week when we don't have guests anyway), and some genuinely neat ideas. Next year it might really, finally be time to build ourselves a sukkah.
And for those of you who do build one, I offer a few blessings: kavvanot (intentions) for Sukkot.
How thankful I am for the sturdiness of my dwelling, which protects me and gives me the illusion of permanence.
How thankful I am for the chance to enact the mitzvah of building a sukkah, to connect me with all who labor with their hands.
May this sukkah be a place of joyful welcoming, reminding us that even in a flimsy structure with leaky roof we can still share what we have with others.
May this sukkah increase my compassion for those who live at the mercy of the elements, and my intention to help the homeless and needy in my own community.
There is no Temple, and I do not farm: I cannot make a harvest offering as in days of old. My offering to You is the work of my hands and the openness of my heart.
Hag sameach: happy holiday, all.