Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, is the Megilah we read in the Sukkot. It reminds us that there is a time for everything in life, while wondering about the very existence of human beings in the world.
On Shabbat of Chol haMoed Sukkot, “zman simchateinu”—a time of joy—it is good to remember that the celebration is also a time of gathering (“chag haasif”—the Festival of Recollection), a time of encounters and reunions, a time to become aware of our fragility and of our own possibilities to protect ourselves and our own.
The precariousness and the ephemerality of the Sukkah puts us in contact with the fragility and vulnerability in which we are inserted in this world. And in the past years, when we have learned a lot about the frailty of our lives in an almost tangible, palpable way, taking time to reflect on it brings us closer to our tradition.
But at the same time Sukkot invites us to do our best to find safety in a flimsy space. And that is precisely what we must achieve in our daily lives. Achieve safe spaces in the midst of the insecurities of our everyday life, taking refuge in our ties, our homes, our affinity groups, our Community, our precautions.
It is in the encounter with others, with our friends and family, and in the recreation of the tradition of symbolically receiving our ancestors in the Sukkah, the “ushpizin” (Abraham, Yitzchak, Yaacov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David), that we collectively meet with our past, with our memories and transmit them and make them our own. We and each one in every generation that follows us.
There is no doubt that Sukkot is one of the most educational of our festivals. I would say it is on a par with Pesach. There is content for us to learn with everything we see in the Sukkah: fruits and vegetables, ornaments... There are aromas that fill us with pleasure both in the Sukkah itself and through the minim, the four species—especially the Etrog.
Perhaps all that accumulation of sensations dazzles us a little. It's all nice. And it really is. Sukkot is that holiday where it is prescribed that we MUST be happy. And just happy.
Precisely after the evaluation, and, above all, the self-evaluation that we have just passed through in the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim, the terrible days that ended on Yom Kippur, we need a bit of good and fresh air to continue ahead. Something like a real cool bear that cheers us up.
That is Sukkot. A breeze of encouragement. A boost of joy and optimism because a year begins in which we have to put all our good intention and energy to start in the best way. But beware! It is not a light moment. It is not a moment of leisure in which nothing matters to us and we are happy without taking into account the surrounding reality. If YOU are happy and feel happy, you must contemplate that others around you may be happy too.
And that is where the precariousness of the Sukkah comes in, detaching us, even though for a few days, from our daily comforts. The Sukkah teaches us that there are things that can be put aside and that we can enjoy other simple things; that values are shared and lived even without the comforts and luxuries that we have, and that this does not mean less happiness.
Chag Sukkot teaches us that our effort should be placed on feeling and being happy, not on accumulating belongings. And if there is someone who is not happy with their way of life, we must take responsibility in seeing how to make them happier.
Sukkot presents us with a strange paradox: what for us is precarious, for others it is not. For our ancestors, what seemed precarious—the wandering life in the desert—was the symbol that everything was starting to be better after 400 years of slavery in Egypt and that freedom was a tangible fact.
Sukkot is a turning point in our people’s calendar cycle. Time, in Sukkot, is a shared time, which combines history, our present and the future.
These are days in which we find ourselves in an instance that, symbolized by the Sukkah, transcends our material reality. We are proposed to travel through memory and with our actions and circulate between “different times”. Mixing the moments of anxiety due to precariousness with the obligatory joy of the Chag and then, adding the joy of Shabbat. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, it would be a castle of time within another castle of time within one more. And that’s the direct link with Kohelet. Finding, discovering, ordering and evaluating the different times to which we are subjected, or better yet, to which we are proposed to submit.
On Shabbat of Chol haMoed Sukkot we aspire to get away from our current concerns, which are many, to withdraw from them, to “dislodge” the immediacy of our daily lives and to enjoy Shabbat and the joy of celebration.
May we do it!
Rabbi Gustavo Geier