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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick


If ever there was proof positive that Jewish culture is the product of years-long evolution, it is this Hebrew month of Tishrei with its endless holidays. Who would purposely design a farkakte calendar like ours?

(Even without this overburdened month of holidays, the calendar's identity crisis over whether it's a lunar calendar or a solar calendar - it's both - would be evidence enough.)

In any case, here we are in the middle of Tishrei facing Sukkot and Simchat Torah as they bite at the heels of the just-completed "high" holidays.

Tishrei's holidays originated in many different times and places. The high holidays we just celebrated were an import from Babylon (which also reminds us that Judaism is not some unalloyed gift of a deity).

Sukkot, a Canaanite harvest feast that begins this Friday night, was celebrated in ancient Israel for many centuries before the high holidays arrived. And Simchat Torah, Sukkot's appendage, is a later medieval diaspora invention, probably not more than 1,500 years old.

Yet, despite the extraordinary holiday fatigue of this Hebrew month, I still highly recommend Sukkot to modern secular Jews. In addition to being the oldest of the four Tishrei holidays, it also offers interesting and meaningful rituals and themes.

Its official and fictional origin story revolves around the temporary booth dwellings (plural: sukkot) that housed the Israelites during their forty-year sojourn from exodus to Israel. In reality, the booths were harvest huts that people placed in the middle of their fields to keep an eye on their ripening crops. For we modern folks these ritual booths are a nice reminder that even now our food does not originate at a grocery store. In our increasingly urbanized world, spending some time in or near a sukkah offers a modest opportunity to reconnect with nature.

One of my favorite traditions of Sukkot is the "Ushpizin," meaning "guests" in Aramaic. On Sukkot we symbolically invite our ancestors and actually invite real guests into the sukkah. This promotes values of hospitality and openness. Humanistic Jews can also appreciate it as a reminder of our universal values, emphasizing the importance of inclusivity, welcoming the stranger, and breaking barriers between people.

When I worked at the JCC in Miami, I spent more than one Sukkot holiday picking up pieces of the JCC sukkah strewn across our campus. That's the fate of a temporary and fragile structure during storm season. But it's that very fragility that serves as a kind of ritual demonstration of the impermanence and vulnerability of life. This is something that - even as we hope our sukkah will hold on! - helps to focus us on cherishing and valuing each moment of our lives.

Finally, there are some social justice related lessons of the holiday. This is why our Social Justice Committee is sponsoring our own celebration. One way that we can view the sukkah is as a reminder of the issues surrounding homelessness. The temporary nature of its shelter can help us raise awareness about housing issues today, including the longings of so many for a home of their own. At this week's Sukkot celebration we'll take a closer look at this idea.

Please join us for that wonderful event this Friday night at 6pm down by our Sukkah. It's a potluck so there's no charge, but we are dependent upon our members bringing some good food to eat!

Chag Sukkot Sameach - Happy Sukkot!


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