Perhaps it's a reward for surviving the austerity of Rosh Hashanah and clocking in an entire day of services for Yom Kippur, because those holy days are beautiful, but tough. Turns out, though, that the Bible's best holiday follows immediately afterward: the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles). The food is great, the services are (relatively) short -- enlivened by celebratory songs- - and evidence of nature's bounty festoons the sanctuary.
But the very best aspect of this biblical celebration is the sukkah itself, a palm-thatched booth that the Torah directs us to dwell in for the entire week of the holiday: "You shall live in Sukkot seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I caused the Israelite people to dwell in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God" (Leviticus 23:42).
The message of the sukkah is both simple and profound: that we are sheltered, that what appears to be fragile and temporary possesses surprising resilience and strength, that holiness permeates the world, that joy is itself a supreme religious virtue.
The Psalmist writes, "taste and know that God is good." The tastes of this holiday -- it's smells of palm and fir branches, the sights of the dried vegetables and fruit that adorn the sukkah, the delicious flavors of the autumn meals, the lively sounds of conversation with loved ones and community -- all synergize to manifest ki l'olam hasdo, divine love that is everywhere and always.
That theoretical affirmation blossomed into lived reality when I spent the night in our sukkah with our young twins. Biblical law instructs Jews to "dwell" in their booths for the duration of the holiday. In colder climates -- like the American Northeast where I attended college and rabbinical school -- it is far too cold to sleep in a sukkah. In fact, I recall many rushed meals wrapped in heavy overcoats and blankets, quickly supping soup so we could technically fulfill the requirement of "dwelling" and then rush back inside to thaw.
Once we moved to Southern California, with it's lovely Mediterranean climate, I was determined to give the overnight experience a try. After dinner in the sukkah, we cleared away the dinner table, spread out a few mattresses and blankets, and prepared for what I thought would be a great experience for the kids. For their benefit, and far earlier than I normally go to sleep, I lay down between my 3-year-old twins and we all dozed off.
In the still of the night, around 2 in the morning, I awoke gently to the rhythmic breathing of my two sleeping infants. Two pillows, on my left and my right, two sleeping children, each rolled toward me in the middle, both smiling in their tranquility and slumber. Could there be a more peaceful sight?
Turning my gaze upward, I could perceive the stars and the full moon shimmering through the latticework of the palm fronds above. Undulating in a sea of calm blackness, these myriad night lights evoked their usual wonder, and unusual calm. I felt sheltered, embraced, and secure in the cosmos, just as my children did snuggled with their Abba.
Perhaps it was this same pervasive calm that moved the Prophet Isaiah to proclaim, "The Lord will create upon every dwelling place ... a cloud and smoke by day, and it shall serve as a sukkah for shade from heat by day and for shelter and protection against drenching rain" (4:5-6).
Perhaps that is why the Zohar understands that "the sukkah is the Supernal Mother [God's female aspect, Shekhinah] who shelters you like a mother shelters her children" (Zohar 3:255b).
We all crave shelter and haven, and we all seek love.
Dwelling in a sukkah is an ancient and powerful conduit to channel and express the everlasting love -- of community, cosmos and God. For me, that evening of starry shelter, surrounded by Jacob and Shira, conveyed a cosmic, covenanted love that has sustained me ever since, and invites us all to its embrace.