Drash on Parashat Chol Hamoed Succot
Rabbi Dr Orna Triguboff
Emanuel Synagogue, NSW
Symbols of Sukkot – Celebrating Impermanence and Nature
One of the most joyous festivals in the Jewish calendar is Sukkot - the Festival of Booths. Each household builds an outdoor booth-sukkah, which has walls usually made of cloth and a roof of foliage through which the stars are visible. The more time one can spend in it the better. It reminds us of the dwellings the Children of Israel lived in during their 40 year journey in the wilderness. The sukkah reminds us that we live in a fragile world of impermanence. Just as the sukkah stands only during the 8 days of the holiday, so too, we consider our own impermanence.
And yet, this is only one aspect of the symbolism of the sukkah. Another image often used to explain the sukkah is that it is as if the wings of the divine Presence, the shekhinah, embraces us as we sit in the sukkah. It becomes a holy space in which people are held in divine embrace. The sukkah is like a ‘Higher Mother’ who spreads an aura of peace over us.
A curious kabbalistic tradition of Ushpizin, is where the sukkah becomes a space in which the spiritual presence of biblical figures are ‘hosted’. It is stated that on each night of the festival, a different type of energy fills the space. For example, the first night of Sukkot, is the night where the spirit of Abraham is present in the sukkah, bringing a quality of loving-kindness; on the second night the spirit of Isaac brings a quality of protection and strength etc.
Another Sukkot ritual filled with symbolism is the waving of the 4 species, the citron-etrog, the palm branch-lulav, the myrtle branches-hadas and the willow branches-aravah. It is said in the Zohar, the mystical Book of Radiance, that the golden lemon like citron symbolises the light and beauty of the heart, the palm branch symbolises the principle of straightness and the spine. The branches of the willow symbolise our legs and the myrtle branches our arms.
As we hold the 4 species together we shake them 3 times in each of the 6 directions. This adds up to 18 shakings. The number 18 is equivalent in numerology to the Hebrew word chai, ‘life’. When we shake the lulav, we connect with the principle of life and vitality.
And the heart is always at the core of the ritual. Each time we extend the lulav towards one direction, we bring it back to the heart and we remember that the heart is our base and contains the essence of who we are.
Here is a link to a creative synthesis of Tai Chi with the Jewish practice of shaking the lulav:
There are so many ways to understand all these rituals, I hope you continue to explore and find ones that are meaningful to you. Blessings for a joyous Festival of Booths, where we can experience the freedom of impermanence.