One Sukkot while I was in graduate school, the young men and women of the local Chabad chapter built what they called a “sukkah-mobile” (come to think of it, it’s likely they built one every year, though I only encountered it once). It was a simple but solid hut built on a flat-bed trailer. They would drive it around Chicago’s Hyde Park, to serve the university students there. I came upon the sukkah on wheels one weekday during Sukkot on my way to the library.
The chabadnik who was manning the sukkah-mobile was stopping people who looked Jewish (or maybe he was stopping everyone, I’m not sure), and asking if they wanted to bensch lulav (the traditional blessing over the four species of plant) in the sukkah. I took him up on the offer.
He told me what to do: how to hold the lulav and etrog, and where to stand. Then he had me repeat the bracha after him. One. Word. At. A. Time. “I read Hebrew,” I said as he waited for me to say “baruch,” “can I just read the bracha?” He wouldn’t bite. So, one word at a time, I said the bracha, and, at his instruction, shook the branches and citrus fruit in all directions. That was thirteen years ago. It was the first and only time I have bensched lulav for Sukkot.
Though I was born Jewish, Sukkot is one of the holidays in the calendar that completely escaped my notice growing up. My family just didn’t observe Sukkot. And, while I engaged with the festival intellectually while a Jewish Studies graduate student, that chabadnik sukkah-mobile experience is one of a very few practical experiences I have with the festival (the others almost exclusively involve meals in someone else’s sukkah).
In researching the festival for this blog (and for the inevitable questions from my three-year-old), I’m coming to regret my lack of practical sukkah experience. If Passover is the season of our liberation, and Shavuot is the season of revelation, Sukkot is the season of our joy (or so says the Seasons of Our Joy, my reliable companion through the calendar).
So close on the heels of Yom Kippur and our communal day of repentance and (we hope) forgiveness, Sukkot is a change of tone. It’s also a change of scene. During the eight day festival (seven in Israel), we are encouraged to spend as much time as possible—with as many meals and as many guests as we can manage—in the sukkah.
A sukkah (plural: sukkot) is a hut, so Sukkot is the “Festival of Huts.” Jewish people today build these temporary structures (at least three walls, but with a ceiling through which the stars and moon must be visible) as a remembrance of the time when the Israelites wandered in the desert—between leaving Egypt and entering the promised land—without permanent homes.
So how is it that the 40 years wandering in the desert, homeless, is the “season of our joy?” Certainly there are numerous examples from the Torah itself of the Israelites kvetching about the journey. How can these buildings our ancestors were so grateful to leave behind represent the season of our joy?
The sukkah forces us to pause and think about all that we have and all that we take for granted. Not unlike my musings on fasting for Yom Kippur, Sukkot is like a reset button. The huts of the wilderness are flimsy and thin. They are open to the ravages of rain, wind, cold, or vandals, but they are also open to welcome guests—strangers, friends, and family.
Music, laughter, and friendship are too big to stay within the fragile walls of the temporary sukkah—and that’s kind of the point. The solid walls of our homes contain so much that we might begin to believe that all those things—the big, loud, messy business that is life—ought to be contained. The sukkah’s openness reminds us that life neither can nor should be contained—that it should spill out around the edges and color the world around it.
As for me, I am looking forward to introducing this joyful season to my daughter, who already understands that joy should not be contained. I pray she never forgets it.
This year, Sukkot begins on the evening of Sunday, September 27, and ends the evening of Sunday, October 4. Please stop by the JCC’s backyard to visit our sukkah during that time.
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Tracie Guy-Decker is a freelance writer and artist. She and her husband, a Navy Chief, and their three-year-old daughter share their home with a poorly behaved dog and a six-toed cat. She can be reached at email@example.com.