Fear and trembling — those have been our primary religious emotions during the past several weeks. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are traditionally known as the Yamim Nora’im — Days of Awe, frightful days, fearful days. Recognizing that these are days of divine judgment, we felt vulnerable, insecure, and anxious about what the coming year has in store for us.
After all, in our prayers, we actually have asked of the Almighty that he “cast His fear over all of His handiwork, and His awe over all of His creatures.”
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard titled his book about Abraham’s binding of Isaac Fear and Trembling, a sign he discerned the central theme of the passage in Genesis read on Rosh Hashana.
But Judaism does not want us to remain stuck in these overwhelming emotions of anxiety and uncertainty. And so our Torah has provided us with the festival of Sukkot, a time not for fear and trembling, contemplation and soul-searching, but for serenity and joy. We emerge from what mystics call the “dark night of the soul” into the bright light of happiness.
But this happiness is not necessarily one of gala celebration; it is deeper, a feeling of contentment, a happiness that derives from a sense of security and trust.
The central symbol of Sukkot is the sukka. What is the meaning of this simple symbol? And how does it inspire this spiritual attitude of trust?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said it best: “The building of the sukka teaches you trust in God. You know that whether men live in huts or in palaces, it is only as pilgrims that they dwell. You know that in this pilgrimage God is our protection. The sukka is a transitory hut that one day will leave us or we will leave it. The walls may fall, the leafy covering may wither in this storm, but the sheltering love of God is everywhere. You dwell in the most fleeting and transitory dwelling as calmly and securely as if it were your house forever.”
And so we redirect our orientation to God — no longer the harsh judge, nor even the compassionate judge. He is now our shelter and protector, the permanent “Rock of Israel” in the transitory experience we call life.
We effect this shift by using the symbols the holiday provides us, chief among them the sukka. How does the sukka work its wonders? The secret is to enter it respectfully and reflectively, spend as much time as possible in its shade, and invite into it two types of guests: friends and family, with special hospitality for those who may never have enjoyed a sukka experience, and we also symbolically summon the ushpizin, the “ghost guests,” our ancestors going back to Abraham and Sarah.
We immerse ourselves in the sukka, encountering there twin blessings: the companionship of others and cherished memories of those who sat in other sukkot before us, ancestors recent and long gone, who all participated as we do in that protracted pilgrimage known as Jewish history.