Lessons of Sukkot shared by Pittsburgh’s clergy and educators
SukkotMessages from the booth

Lessons of Sukkot shared by Pittsburgh’s clergy and educators

How a hut can offer insights this season

Sukkah at night. Photo via iStock-471207521
Sukkah at night. Photo via iStock-471207521

The confounding crash of emotions experienced each Tishrei will continue as Jews quickly move from Yom Kippur to Sukkot.

Five days after seeking forgiveness and entreating divine mercy, celebrants will transport to festively decorated temporary dwellings, joyously shake palm branches and enjoy the aromatic pleasure of etrogs.

Rabbi Amy Bardack of Congregation Dor Hadash has long appreciated the shifting spaces and mindsets.

“What always strikes me is the contrast,” she said.

Yom Kippur is an “inward-focused holiday,” where the day is dedicated to “thinking, repenting and asking for forgiveness.” Those actions occur almost entirely indoors, unlike Sukkot, she said, “where you’re supposed to move your dwelling place outdoors and focus on the harvest.”

Exodus 23:16 describes Sukkot as chag ha’asif (the festival of ingathering), a holiday marking farmers’ final harvesting of their fields.

Cantor David Reinwald of Temple Sinai said he’s drawn to Sukkot’s seasonal nature.

“Especially when I think about my memories of growing up in the Chicago area, Sukkot is very much the kickoff to the fall,” he said. “Being together out in the sukkah” was dependent on unpredictable weather patterns, in contrast to the 12 years he worked in southern California.

Last year marked Reinwald’s first Sukkot in Pittsburgh.

He said he happily welcomed the crisp air, loved having a Shabbat service in the sukkah and enjoyed eating soup in the hut.

“Sukkot is called z’man simchateinu (time of our joy). We need to embrace that element for the period of the week,” he said.

Students enjoy a joint Sukkah party between Chabad on Campus and Hillel JUC. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC

There’s another aspect to the holiday, Rabbi Meir Tabak said: “The sukkah is a physical representation of the time when we were in the desert and surrounded by clouds, which was Hashem’s way of telling us, ‘I got you. You are safe and secure.’”

In Leviticus 23, God tells Moses that the Children of Israel should live in booths for seven days “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

The verse is mentioned in a Talmudic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva regarding the construction of the dwellings. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the booths were literally booths; however, according to Rabbi Akiva, the booths were “clouds of glory.”

Tabak, the chapter director for Pittsburgh NCSY, said there’s a lesson to be learned when entering modern holiday structures.

“Even though we don’t see these clouds today, we are still surrounded — every moment — by Hashem’s goodness,” he said.

Sukkah building. Photo by Norton Gusky via Flickr at shorturl.at/hmFHK

Sukkot has wonderful messages, but for many people, those lessons are enshrouded in practical concerns, explained Maria Carson, director of Jewish education and arts at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

For starters, “it’s expensive,” she said.

A 4-foot-by-6-foot sukkah with interlocking frame, a schach mat to place on top and shipping costs total more than $700 on sukkahoutlet.com.

Another possible detriment to the holiday is that it’s difficult to celebrate “if you live in an apartment,” Carson noted.

The lack of space to easily build the structure requires celebrants to visit other people’s dwellings for an entire week.

Finally, Carson said, there’s the whole harvesting concept: “I don’t feel super connected to the Israeli agricultural season. I’m not a farmer — I like to be inside.”

After a conversation with another Jewish educator, Carson began warming to the often cool holiday.

“She told me that God is always with us no matter where we are dwelling, whether it’s in small or even temporary structures,” the JCC staffer said.

From that conversation, Carson began thinking about Sukkot as a time of “showing empathy to people who are unhoused or have temporary housing.”

Reframing her understanding of the holiday enabled her to realize that “we are celebrating that God can be with us during dark times,” she said.

The message echoes a question about what to do if it rains during the first night of Sukkot.

In his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch, a 16th-century code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Moses Isserles described the scenario and noted that, before retreating indoors, one “must eat an olive’s worth” and recite Kiddush in the sukkah.

Near the end of that holiday prayer is the Shehecheyanu blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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