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Succah, the Season of Our Joy
By Nina Amir Lacey
Sukkot ushers in Zeman Simhatenu, "the Season of Our Joy," yet I await the erection of our family sukkah each year with some trepidation. If I lived in a community with a large Jewish population, I am sure I would usher in this festival with all the joy I could muster. However, I live in a small, very-Christian Illinois town with less than 10 Jewish families, and our sukkah historically is the only one in any backyard within - or even near -- the town's boundaries.
When my husband hauls out the makings of our sukkah, I look around our yard tentatively to see if any neighbors are watching. This backyard project seems a pronouncement that we are different. Our booth appears to scream, "Look here! These people are Jewish!" as loudly as does the lack of Christmas lights on our house in December.
Like a magnet, our sukkah draws the neighborhood children to our yard. My children happily invite their friends inside for a snack, haphazardly fulfilling a Sukkot obligation, or to help decorate. I watch this inclusion proudly, but wonder what the parents will think about their children's visit to our sukkah.
I ignore my inhibitions about bringing attention to our backyard tabernacle and always invite several of the Jewish families in our town to join us for a sukkah decorating party. This actually makes me feel better, since, I rationalize, there is security - albeit false security -- in numbers.
More importantly, doing so creates a wonderful tiny Jewish community right here in our town. My children dance around the yard, overjoyed by the opportunity to share their sukkah with synagogue friends. Opportunities to feel part of a Jewish community even when not at the synagogue, which is 30 minutes away, are for all of us few and far between. In addition, building a sukkah in our backyard provides our children with continuity between their Jewish life at synagogue and religious school and their Jewish life at home.
Additionally, building a sukkah offers my husband and I a wonderful opportunity to teach our children about the sukkah and Sukkot. We explain to them that the Torah commands us to dwell in booths so all generations will know what it was like for the Israelites during their 40-year sojourn in the Sinai desert. We discuss with them what we must do inside the sukkah to fulfill this mitzvah. At the very least, we must bless and shake the lulav and etrog and say the blessings for the sukkah. At the most, we can actually eat, drink, and sleep in it.
Since some biblical scholars argue that sukkot actually are reminiscent of Hag ha-Asif, the ancient Festival of the Ingathering, we tell our children that during this fall harvest festival, the Israelites dwelled in temporary shelters constructed in the fields they were harvesting. In this tradition, decorating the sukkah with branches, fruits, vines, and other natural items serves as a glad expression of our gratitude for the sustenance provided us by the earth.
In either case, we assure them, the fact remains that Jews have been building and dwelling in sukkot for more than 3,000 years - and by building a sukkah of our own, we become part of that tradition.
I like to offer our children one more explanation for the commandment to dwell in booths. Some Jewish sages have argued that the original "huts" used after the exodus from Egypt were "God's Clouds of Glory," which he spread over Israel as protection. In light of this view, I tell them, our sukkah symbolizes God's constant and enveloping presence. Then I ask everyone to sit in the sukkah with his or her eyes closed and to try to feel God surrounding them.
If we have good weather during the week of Sukkot, we participate in a mystical custom, called Ushpizin. Each night we invite the spirit of one biblical person to visit us in the sukkah. Traditionally these are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. This practice helps our children remember some of their Jewish ancestors and reminds them that these seven forefathers also endured exile with God's protection.
Falling after Yom Kippur, Sukkot offers us the chance to rise from our prayers, contemplation and penitence to celebrate our inscription in the Book of Life for another year. So, we explain, during this holiday we joyously acknowledge being alive and life itself. We celebrate the cycles of the earth, of life, and of the Jewish holidays - from sadness to joy and back again, from quiet introspection to outward expressions and back again, and from dormancy to growth and back once again. In addition, the temporary nature of the sukkah reminds us of the impermanence of all that surrounds us and of life itself while grounding us in the knowledge that one thing endures - God.
"What could be more joyous than the abundance of the earth, life itself and our connection to God?" I ask my children. "Only the promise inherent in the mystical interpretation of Sukkot," my husband answers. The, we explain that Sukkot anticipates the arrival of the Messianic Age. Mystics say all the nations will participate in the Feast of Tabernacles as an initiation of peace throughout the world, and then 'The Lord shall be One and His name shall be One."
With that in mind, any last inhibitions I have about building a sukkah in our backyard dissipate, and I experience Sukkot as the season of my own joy.
Nina Amir Lacey is a Reform Jew and freelance writer living in Batavia, Illinois. She is currently writing a book about how to make Shabbat home observance meaningful and spiritual. To contact her, write to CPYWRTCOM@aol.com.
from the October 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine