Most of our Judeo-Christian holidays evolved from millennia-old agrarian festivals. Thanksgiving is no exception, and neither is Sukkot, its Jewish predecessor, both stemming from ancient fall harvest celebrations. In the Near East of yore, these celebrations—which took place around the fall equinox—included sun-worshiping in thanksgiving for the fullness of the year’s harvest and pleading the gods for life-giving winter rainfalls. Sukkot embodies both in the monotheistic transformation of its celebration.
In Second Temple times, the week-long celebration of Sukkot was our people’s main holiday; a time of pilgrimage whereby Jews would gather in Jerusalem for an intense, ecstatic celebration. The festivities included music, dancing, torches, jugglers and the celebration of the harvest’s cornucopia. Think Burning Man on steroids.
Sukkot means “huts,” and refers to the portable structures that our ancestors lived in during the fall harvest. Farmers would live together in a traveling Sukkah (singular for Sukkot), while they harvested each other’s field. This image of traveling Sukkot inspired the rabbis to reframe the narrative and save the celebration of the holiday after the Romans’ destruction of the Holy Temple. We continue to build Sukkot in our backyards or in our synagogues’ courtyards one week a year but, now, in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt and the 40-year desert wandering during which our ancestors lived in Sukkot.
During the holiday we are commanded to dwell in our Sukkah, our flimsy temporary shelter. Its roof made of branches must provide more shade than it allows in light, but not too much that it prevents us from seeing the stars at night. This exposure opens us to the lessons of the holiday. For one, it reminds us that, like the Hebrews of Exodus, we are all traveling in the temporary shelter of our fragile body, our erratic circumstances, at the mercy of the elements. It also teaches us that, like for our Sukkah’s roof, we must strive to strike a balance between living overly protected, guarded and covered-up—hiding in the false safety of our life’s shade/shadow—and letting light in, letting ourselves be exposed, vulnerable and open-hearted.
As we sit and give thanks in our Sukkah for the abundance we are blessed with, we are reminded that while we—after just a short week—will be able to step back into our warm homes, others live outdoors in huts all year long. Synagogues organize food drives during the fall holidays to help replenish our local food banks ahead of winter.
Why not make your Thanksgiving celebration this year, an opportunity to reflect on life’s frailty, on the fears that keep your heart closed, and on how you might share of your abundance with those still sleeping in makeshift huts?
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
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