Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu, a time of rejoicing. Sukkot is one of the holidays I look forward to most. If Judaism is a religion of action, Sukkot does not disappoint! We construct temporary structures with friends, family, and community. We take time to decorate these temporary dwellings to enhance the gatherings we organize. We acquire the arba minim, the four species, which we shake, smell, and engage with fully. To sum it up Sukkot is a time for feasting, festivities, and fellowship.
During Sukkot we read Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes. Kohelet may not immediately resonate with the joyfulness that we are tasked with experiencing during the days of Sukkot. On the surface, Kohelet is rather depressing and discouraging with a refrain of “utter futility! All is futile!” However, upon closer reading, Kohelet’s message is life affirming. Kohelet reminds us, that no one knows the length of his or her days under the sun stating, “Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might” (Kohelet 10:9). Since our time is limited, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to be intentional with the time we have on this Earth. Though Kohelet is also quick to point out that it is important to not simply work hard, but to work smart. In Kohelet 10:10 it is written, “If the ax has become dull and he has not whetted the edge, he must exert more strength. Thus the advantage of a skill [depends on the exercise of] prudence.” While reading Kohelet, I was reminded of a quote from our 16th president Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln is credited with saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Both Kohelet and President Lincoln underscore the importance of employing intelligence when approaching any task. If we fail to heed this insight, we will end up exerting additional effort that can be better placed elsewhere.
Kohelet also articulates the message that ultimately what we have is from our creator. Therefore, when we encounter success and setback, both are equally imperative to acknowledge. As Kohelet states in 7:14, “So in a time of good fortune enjoy the good fortune; and in a time of misfortune, reflect: The one no less than the other was God’s doing; consequently, man may find no fault with Him.” It can be tempting to attribute good fortunate to our own efforts and misfortune to God, but doing so would be inappropriate. Kohelet ends with the importance of revering God and living a life of observing mitzvoth, since we will all be held accountable for our actions during this life. Kohelet serves as a reminder that we are mortal, but in our mortality is an opportunity to live a good and impactful life.
Returning to the joyousness of Sukkot, Kohelet remarks, “Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him; for that is his portion” (Kohelet, 9:17). Although we understand that good comes from sharing what we can with others, eating and drinking are linked to this joyous holiday. It is not enough to simply assemble a sukkah and enter it, we are commanded to eat and drink. Judaism understands the importance of satiating our bodies and souls. Therefore we prepare lavish meals to enjoy with the people that matter to us. Although we are careful to construct our sukkahs as a temporary structure to remind us of our wandering in the desert, we also do what we can to make it feel like home, as instructed by our sages. I have seen a great deal of variation in sukkahs, from the bare minimum, scarcely large enough for one person to the other extreme in which a family brought in couches, lamps, artwork, and armoires…definitely one of the more elaborate sukkahs I have been to. There is no right or wrong way to furnish a sukkah, so long as it contains ample dining space for your guests to eat and drink in comfort.
On the topic of guests, guests are very significant to sukkot. We use the Aramaic word for guests, ushpizin, and there is a custom and a short ceremony of welcoming influential biblical ancestors including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Today, it is customary to also include our matriarchs and influential females ancestors from biblical times to further elevate the holiness of our celebrations. In addition to the ushpizin of our past, Rambam relates that anyone who sits with his or her family comfortably in the sukkah and does not share with the poor has failed to understand the mitzvah of sukkot. If someone does not reach out to those less fortunate, they miss fulfilling the mitzvah for joy, and are motivated by their stomachs rather than their hearts.
This sukkot let us heed the wisdom of Kohelet and remember that life is precious and may we recall the words of Rambam to welcome in those who are in need. May this sukkot remind us that there are those in our communities that lack even a temporary structure to shelter them and to call home.
Chag Sukkot Sameach!