Drash on Chol Hamoed Sukkot
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
Sukkot is a holiday which, according to our tradition, is meant to teach about joy and celebration. It comes at a time when we have just survived a gruelling section of the calendar when we have fasted and put our souls through an extended cleansing ritual. Finally, there is a time to step back and rejoice. It was a time when the farmers would be at their wealthiest, as they would have just concluded the harvest.
Sukkot also has similarities with several events in our calendar. It is epitomized by an impermanent structure that is deliberately left open, just as a chuppah is at Jewish weddings. It shares the harvest themes with Passover and Shavuot. There is the continuing theme of repentance with the High Holy Days.
And there is also the connection with Shabbat. On Shabbat, we are told that for six days we are to do our normal work, but on the seventh day, no work is to be done. We are to dwell on the Shabbat. For Sukkot, we are commanded that “every Israelite shall dwell in sukkot [temporary huts]” (Leviticus 23:42). Interestingly, for both of these holidays, the word used is dwell. Why?
For Shabbat, it is commonly explained that God ceased from working on creation on the seventh day and thus, we should as well. For one day of the week, we should cease from improving the world around us and just be. With regard to Sukkot, we spend the entire year living in homes, protected from the world around us, but for one week, we are told to be in a ramshackle impermanent structure opened to the elements. It is not to punish us or force us to live an ascetic lifestyle to be closer to nature or God. It is meant to remind us that sometimes, in spite of our illusion of control, our lives are as permeable and open as the Sukkah. As we read the Book of Ecclesiastes this coming Shabbat, we can read the futility of striving to shut out that which is beyond our control. The purpose then of dwelling in the Sukkah is to accept and welcome in the world around us and to joyously celebrate the varied possibilities that life affords us, from sharing a meal with friends and family in the Succah, to recalling the simple pleasures of the harvest. Through its simplicity, the Sukkah can remind us of the complexities that we are surrounded by each and every day of our lives, if only we have the strength to simply dwell and welcome it into our lives.
However, the tradition wants to ensure that we do not undo all the positive steps we have taken in the preceding few weeks. Sukkot is not about celebrating with wild abandon through excess, but rejoicing in what we have and being satisfied with that. This value is espoused in the way we celebrate. We are commanded to build a Sukkah, a minimalist structure that we are required to dwell in for the duration of the holiday. We are taught that while we may be awash in material blessings, the true blessings come from the way in which we live our lives, not in the way accumulate things. We can grow accustomed to enjoying the excess, but at the moment of their greatest wealth, the Israelites were commanded to remember where the material blessings had come from and how they are still required to live a life that is in keeping with their value, no matter how full or empty their wallets are. We are living in a time when some of our material blessings are fleeting, but just as when they are plenty, let us strive to remember that our fulfillment comes not from the things we don’t have but the people we love and cherish. Sukkot comes to teach us that even this frail hut filled with guests and our loved ones is a greater source of happiness than our luxurious and comfortable homes.