Next to Passover, Sukkot is my favorite holiday. I think it always was, but it became even more so when, sixteen years ago, I invited a gentleman named Burt to join me and my family for dinner in my sukkah. I don’t think it was the brisket or homemade round challah, but later that year we were married and Burt has joyfully been building that sukkah ever since. A win-win.
My tradition of building a sukkah began forty years ago when my youngest daughter, a student in a local day school, said she would like to invite her classmates to enjoy some juice and cookies in our sukkah. Didn’t I think that was a great idea, she asked? I agreed, but surely she must have noticed that we didn’t actually have a sukkah. Not a problem. She quickly and enthusiastically suggested that it would be great fun to build one. She was right, and so began a wonderful and very meaningful tradition.
We designed it, according to Jewish law, in the shape of one of the Hebrew letters found in “Sukkot.” We selected the “hey,” a square letter that is wide open on one side. Oh, the symbolism! A trip to the hardware store to buy the decorative wooden lattice sides, a talk with the gardener to request some palm fronds, and a call to my synagogue to order a lulav (closed palm frond) and an etrog (citrus fruit), and we were good to go.
So here on Sukkot—this joyful holiday that immediately follows Yom Kippur, the most solemn of days when we recount our sins many times and ask forgiveness—we are now given a second chance to start over with a clean slate. One must wonder why the Jewish tradition teaches that to begin again we should live for a week in a fragile sukkah that is open to the elements and to the world. Why not in the comfort of a secure structure, protected from the weather and from all outside influences? The tradition is very wise. This world is very broken, in need of all of us to feel each other’s pain, to lift up the fallen, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry. On Yom Kippur we vowed to be better and to act better than the previous year. Sukkot gives us that opportunity. It sensitizes us and teaches us to appreciate all that we have and to share it with those that have less.
Sukkot also gives us the opportunity to create our own traditions. A few of mine come to mind that are particularly meaningful: inviting the special needs children from my synagogue to come over and help with the decorating, our annual havurah (a group of ten synagogue friends) potluck dinner, and the more recent tradition of hosting former Skirball colleagues at an annual lunch reunion.
I know, as I did before, that it is not the brisket or homemade round challah that makes these celebrations meaningful. It is the need to reconnect, to affirm how much we enjoy each other, and to recognize how the message of Sukkot enriches the quality of our lives.