Fragility of Life & Sukkot
We are now in the time of year of a lot of Jewish holidays.
The Jewish holidays go in cycles and right now we’re in the beginning of the yearly cycle. So first there’s the Jewish New Year, which is a very happy time and there’s apples and honey and while everyone is trying to keep the start of the school year going, we say, “Happy New Year!”
Then there are ten days that people often refer to as the Days of Awe. It’s a time of introspection and you’re supposed to take an accounting of yourself. A reckoning of your life and who you are as a person. You’re supposed to look inwards very deeply.
Have you heard of Napoleon Hill’s book, Think And Grow Rich? I often start books at the end. At the end of that book is a questionnaire with about, I don’t know, over 100 questions and it’s all about taking an inventory of yourself.
The ten days of introspection culminate on the 10th day, which was last Wednesday. That was Yom Kippur, a day of fasting. Luckily, the power wasn’t cut out. I was thinking of 700 people in our synagogue with no air conditioning to keep us awake. That would not have been good, but that worked out.
Then it keeps going with lesser known holidays! We are in one of those right now. The holiday that we’re in, I know there are some of you that know it is called …
Sukkot, which is plural in Hebrew for sukkah. And sukkah means booth. We actually build a sukkah every year and then take it down. It’s meant to be a temporary shelter. It’s meant to remind us of our connection to nature, and of the fragility of life, since it is not supposed to be able to withstand strong weather.
A sukkah has a few requirements. It has to have a good clear opening. It can’t be a solid structure with a door. It has to have an opening.
It also has to have a roof that is not complete, a roof through which you can see the stars. Depending on who you ask, you can see God, nature, etc, depending on your beliefs. And the roof has to be made of some organic material.
Every year I learn a little something new, and this year I learned that the roof has to be made from some type of material that used to grow in the ground and has now been somewhat freshly, recently removed from the ground or from a tree. It also can’t have been made into another useful purpose. For example, it can’t be a mat woven from other natural material.
So it’s really not something you can keep from year to year. Most typically people put palm fronds. We have a friend at our synagogue who’s super organized and remembers ahead of this holiday every year to ask her gardener to gather palm fronds. She had so many palm fronds that she allowed us to go over and take all the ones that we needed for ours after they’d already done their huge sukkah.
We have a kit to build our sukkah. I’m happy to report that my husband and I stayed married on Sunday while he managed to build this. Together, we put the palm fronds on top.
The point is to be able to see and feel our fragility, our vulnerability. That is the point of dwelling in a temporary structure. Some people take it really seriously. They will spend nights in there like overnights with the kids. So far in my life, I have not done that.
Even though our recent heat wave picked an inconvenient time to go away, we’ve had a wonderful time eating meals in our sukkah as often as possible. Our little almost three year old granddaughter the other night came over and we made some little paper decorations and put them up in our sukkah and said the blessing over the lulav and the etrog with her. The picture above shows the cool rope-lighting we put up this year.
What’s a lulav and etrog?
There are four plant species that we use for blessings for this holiday. The lulav is a gathered set of small branches of palm frond, myrtle and willow. These have to be fresh every year. We shake the lulav and we say prayers. (This is partly, in my mind, why some people think Jewish people are so bizarre because we do things that if you look at it from the outside, it’s looks really weird and different!)
And the fourth is these plant items called an etrog. It is very special and comes all the way from Israel, unfortunately in a lot of packing materials which are there to protect the little stem on one end. If that little stem is not there, it’s not valid for the blessing ritual. When you lightly scratch the surface of this special type of lemon, it smells beautiful, so fragrant.
A Jewish lemon all the way from Israel!
During Sukkot, we are also supposed to have guests in our sukkah as often as possible. While dwelling in the fragile structure, we find strength and support with family and friends.
Every year we go through the cycle again. We have the opportunity to ask the same questions again, to discover new meanings and new ways of experiencing our own faith and also to dwell in the sukkah, look up at the stars and the sky, and remember the fragility of life.