Home > Divrei Torah > Sukkot


September 25, 2007

By Rabbi Jill Hammer

The quintessential image of harvest-time is the bundle: the sheaf of wheat, the bushel of apples, the cluster of grapes. The arba’ah minim, the four species of the lulav (- palm branch, etrog – citron, willow and myrtle), is the Jewish harvest-bundle, bringing together four different kinds of plant into a beautiful, fragrant bouquet. We wave this bouquet in the six directions, tethering ourselves to the Divine Presence dwelling in every corner of the earth. Symbolically, we show how different elements come together to make holiness. Sukkot, in many sensory and spiritual ways, allows us to experience the unity and multiplicity of our world. It is the festival of the web of life.

This theme of the bundle, of bringing together multiple aspects into a whole, abounds throughout Sukkot. The Temple sacrifices of Sukkot, which we read about in the Torah during the festival week, number seventy: the number of nations in the world. This ancient ritual of offering brought the world’s peoples symbolically into a bundle, reminding us of the humanity we share with all beings. Our predecessors gathered together in Jerusalem at this season, emphasizing their bond with one another. We still participate in this rite of union through communal prayer, and through the Torah readings that tell of the pilgrimage and its offerings.

We also invite all generations to join us in the sukkah. The ushpizin ritual, a mystical custom in which we invite our biblical ancestors to dwell with us in the sukkah, allows us to feel that our
entire people, past and present, is gathered together in the liminal space of the harvest booth. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David join us for the holiday, along with Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. Sephardic Jews set in the sukkah a throne for these guests. These biblical figures represent all those who have gone before us, and remind us that one day we may be legends and role models for those who come after us. Our sacred bundle includes not only our community in the present, but our past and future as well.

The sukkah, the harvest hut in which we live for the seven days of the Sukkot festival, is topped with bundles of plant life. These branches or bamboo staves must shade us, but also let in the light of the sun and stars. The floor of the sukkah
becomes a latticework of light and darkness, protection and vulnerability. On Sukkot, we acknowledge that the web of life is strong and fragile at the same time. For this reason, the Talmud records an argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva claims the sukkah represents the real, fragile homes of the Israelites in the wilderness. Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, claims that the sukkah represents the clouds of glory, and the hovering
protection of the Shekhinah (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 11b). In fact, the sukkah holds both of these
truths: the fragility of physical life and its abundance, the ephemerality of the spirit and its vast strength. Like the sukkah roof that lets in light and darkness, Sukkot teaches us about the web of our experience.

The central rite of Sukkot is the procession in a circle with the lulavim. This ceremony occurs once on each day of Sukkot (except Shabbat) and seven times on the final Sukkot day known as Hoshanah Rabbah, which means “the great cry for deliverance.” The circling with the lulavim recalls the festival processions around the altar. It also reminds us that we are a circle. We are connected to the seasons, the stars, the earth, the plants, our ancestors, and to divinity itself. Our actions do not begin and end with us. We are not alone or insignificant. We are interlinked with all things. We are permeable; we are responsible. We are part of the sacred bundle.

As we take up our palm branches, willows, myrtles, and etrogim on Sukkot, as we wave
them in the six directions, may we come to feel how connected we are to all times and places. As we build each sukkah to be a latticework of light and darkness, may we feel the totality of what we are as bodies and spirits. As we invite our ancestors into the sukkah each evening, may we know we are linked to past, present, and future. As we walk in the circles of the festival, may we find ourselves encircled and sustained by the Weaver of the web of life.

Chag sameiach and Shabbat Shalom.