Sukkot: Building community

sukkahIf we ever needed an exercise in fragility (not futility), there is the holiday of  Sukkot.  Ok, for some , putting up a sukkah may be futile, but at their best, they are fragile structures.  Intentionally.  We’ve just come through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are confronted with our own fragility, and the graciousness with which our mistakes are  overlooked, and we reboot for a new year.

What’s the first thing we do after Yom Kippur? After confronting our own human vulnerability, realizing how much we need sustenance by refraining from it for 24+ hours, we build something of such impermanence!  The sukkah is only supposed to be standing for a week, but during that week, we tempt the elements, stand under an incomplete ceiling, exposed to the elements, in God’s “outdoor sanctuary”, as my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Nina Mizrahi writes today in her weekly musings for JCC Chicago.

Nina and I were talking this morning, and she mentioned how Sukkot is a “unity holiday”.  A sukkah is a community icon.  It’s certainly a hospitality holiday.  It is all about welcoming others into your sukkah, sharing space, and being open, literally.  The ceiling is open, and there are only 3 walls.    We welcome neighbors and friends, and ancestors, too.  Everyone decorates a sukkah differently, reflecting personal style,  although construction paper chains and seasonal gourds seem to be pretty common.

Nina mentioned that the menorah was also a unity “icon”, in that it’s not only recognized as part of a holiday that can be celebrated in so many ways (Chanukah – is it  political, religious, historical, sociological, etc) but the menorah itself, like the Jewish community, has many branches.  The Torah says the menorah was hammered out of a single piece of metal.  One whole branching off into parts.

The sukkah, on the other hand, is made of many pieces, but forming a whole structure.   The menorah sat in the holiest, most private of all places: inside the Tabernacle.  The sukkah sits outside, among the community, out for all to see and visit.  It’s purposefully public.

After a week and a half of intense personal reflection, the holiday of Sukkot brings us outside ourselves again, out into the community, out into the natural world.  It’s a harvest festival, and we gather our friends together as much as we gather our crops – and we are grateful for both.

We need both the menorah and the sukkah.  They balance each other nicely.  The sukkah, for all its frailty, makes for one solid community experience.

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