Spiritual Dimensions of Sukkot

If Yom Kippur is designed to heighten our awareness of mortality, Sukkot shows us the impermanence of possessions. Everything we have is a loan from God to be shared with others. The sukkah, built immediately following Yom Kippur, is a temporary structure with three walls and a roof of branches placed far enough apart that we can see the stars through them. This is to remind us we are wholly dependent on God, the only real source of security. Everyone, rich or poor, is the same in this regard. We eat meals and also sleep in the sukkah. Each night, we are visited by the ancestors, who correspond to the seven of the ten sephirot (aspects or emanations of God) having to do with corporeal reality. We put out a special chair for them, as we do for Elijah at Pesach. In order of appearance:

Abraham & Sarah = chesed, loving kindness

Isaac & Rebecca = gevurah, strength in judgment

Jacob & Rachel = tiferet, beauty

Joseph & Leah = netzach, victory

Moses & Miriam = hod, glory

Aaron & Abigail = yesod, intimacy

David & Esther = malchut, majesty

Every morning, except for on Shabbat, we wave the lulav and etrog, either inside or outside of the sukkah, to symbolize God’s universal presence. The etrog (citron) corresponds to the heart, the letter Yud in Y-H-V-H, the person who knows tradition and also does good deeds. It has both flavor and fragrance. The lulav (palm branches) correspond to the spine, the letter Vav, and the person who knows Torah but doesn’t do the mitzvot. It has flavor, but no fragrance. The myrtle corresponds to the eyes, the letter Hay, and the person who does good deeds but doesn’t know enough. It has fragrance but no flavor. The willow corresponds to the mouth, the letter Hay, and the person who neither knows enough nor does enough. It has neither flavor nor fragrance. This collection of plants is known as the four species. They may be pagan symbols originally used by Semitic tribes, before the Hebrews, as part of their harvest celebrations. The personalities they represent are said to make up a community – all are beloved by God and all are needed. When the lulav and etrog are shaken, with the etrog in one hand and the lulav in the other, they go to the East, North, West, South (over the shoulder), Up, Down, and toward ourselves.  We become centered. A human being who demonstrates civility and loving kindness becomes a Tree of Life.

On the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the verdict from the High Holy Days is sealed. In Orthodox communities, people march around with the lulav and beat it into the floor, then save the remains as a broom to sweep out chametz in preparation for Pesach. The etrog may be pierced with cloves and saved for havdalah (the ritual closing of shabbat.)

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal explains, “In Tractate Sukkoth, two rabbis,  a teacher and his student, visit an older one. He has made his sukkah in a non-kosher way. The student is about to leave and state why, but his teacher stays, as does the student who gets the hint, and [they] make beracoth with the lulav, and eat, etc. After, the teacher tells the student that if the choice is to embarrass someone versus eating in a non-kosher sukkah, then eat in the non-kosher sukkah. The Rabbis tell us that while doing one mitzvah we are excused from doing another….Chesed always wins.”

Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, or 8th Day of Assembly, includes a prayer for rain and the reading of Ecclesiastes. While we are on the topic of rain, I encourage readers to learn about rainwater harvesting. The Talmud encourages us to be careful with resources. While alternative sources of energy exist, the planet holds a limited amount of fresh water. Benefits of collecting rainwater from our rooftops include reducing the amount of storm water runoff that goes into the sewer system, and replenishing the local aquifer which supports the ecology of the region. Also, it saves money on irrigation. While it is more complicated to collect and purify rainwater for indoor use, we may need to begin to think in those terms due to increasingly poor ground water quality, corporate efforts toward privatization of the world’s fresh water supply, and a growing population. (Recommended resources: American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association and a 2009 documentary entitled “Blue Gold: World Water Wars” directed by Sam Bozzo, which is available in streaming video format on Netflix.)

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2 responses to “Spiritual Dimensions of Sukkot

  1. Pingback: Sukkot: A Reminder of How Wide a Tent Can Grow. Chag Sameach! |

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