This Shabbat, even as we recall the spiritual experience a few days earlier of Yom Kippur, we anticipate the festival of Sukkot.
Following the enthusiasm of Rosh Hashana and the solemnity of Yom Kippur, Sukkot often fails to generate the attention that it deserves. Proximity to the High Holy Days no doubt accounts for some of the deflected religious energy; after the intensity of the experience of the Ten Days of Teshuva, it is not always so easy to become energized for yet another holiday.
Sukkot, however, ought to be considered more seriously by the contemporary Jewish community. It offers a variety of spiritual insights and ritual opportunities and is, according to tradition, related to the High Holy Days by a number of beliefs.
Sukkot is linked to the Exodus, as are the other pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, which celebrates the deliverance from slavery, and Shavuot, the giving of the Torah to the generation that left Egypt. Both holidays are thus commemorations of events achieved.
Sukkot, however, is not a commemoration of a specific event. Linked to the Exodus in that it represents the 40 years in the desert that followed the departure from Egypt, Sukkot is devoted to the theme of being on the way, rather than leaving or arriving.
The booths we build for the festival are understood to represent the temporary residences established by our ancestors along the way to the Promised Land. While suggesting stability, the sukka, in its fragility, more accurately represents impermanence.
Historically, the sukkot may actually be survivals of temporary housing erected in the fields during the harvest season. Such booths would have been designed to minimize wasted time moving from home to field or to house workers hired for the harvest season.
The second symbol of Sukkot is the arrangement of the four species known as the lulav. The lulav is waved in a ritual manner during the Sukkot services, with the interpretation that the multi-directional shaking of the branches represents the presence of God in all places.
Sukkot comes at the end of the growing season and on the edge of what is, in the Land of Israel, the beginning of the rainy season. The success of the next year’s crop depends largely on the appropriate amount of rainfall. In the ritual of the lulav, we may have a survival of a pre-Israelite pagan custom of propitiating the various deities to send rain at the season.
Biblically, Sukkot is a seven-day festival. Each day, a procession around the sanctuary takes place during morning services. Participants carry lulavim while chanting “Hoshana” — a series of prayers that implore God “to please save us.” The seventh day of the festival is known as Hoshana Rabba, or the “Great Hoshana,” and at the end of the procession, those carrying a lulav beat the branches on the ground so that the remaining leaves fall off.
Tradition holds that contrary to popular opinion, the “Gates of Repentance” do not close “officially” at the end of the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur, but rather remain open until Hoshana Rabba. In the ritual of the beating of the branches, we may discover the reason why.
The old year, which begins to depart in the month of Elul, and which formally ends with the beginning of Rosh Hashana, has a tendency to linger on. Despite our best efforts to “shake off” the failures and discouragements of the previous year, they have a habit of haunting us.
When we beat the branches of the lulav on Hoshana Rabba, we symbolically “shake off” whatever lingers from the old year so that we can prepare for the new cycle of growth.
Once we have experienced the “letting go,” we are ready to celebrate the holiday that comes adjacent to the close of Sukkot: Simhat Torah, when we renew the cycle of Torah reading and study, having prepared ourselves for new beginnings.
Sukkot is thus more than a harvest festival; it is, at its core, the final closure to the period of introspection, repentance, and new beginnings that start with Rosh Hashana and proceed through Yom Kippur. It is a time both to harvest and to hope.