Usually once Yom Kippur ends, me and most of the Jews I know pack it in as far as synagogue is concerned. But since I’m paying attention, tonight my family is going back for Sukkot, the holiday in which observant Jews build impermanent shelters outdoors to eat their meals in for a week. Some also sleep out there.
The holiday celebrates the end of the growing season and the harvest. The huts recall the structures the ancient Israelites built near their ripened crops during harvest time as well as the impermanent homes they used as they traveled through the desert for 40 years. (More on that at Passover time.)
These structures are actually pretty cool. They are made out of natural materials – that which has grown, but is no longer attached to the earth – and the roof is meant to provide shade from the sun, but allow light from the stars in at night.
In New York City this past week, there was a display in Union Square of Sukkah City, the results of an international design competition to reimagine the sukkah. Here’s a slide show to see photos. Beautiful structures. The entire display is down by now, but the Center for Architecture in NY is having an exhibit from now until October 30.
Everyone loves a harvest festival so it’s not hard to get with this holiday. But true to my search for meaning in this religion, I looked up the symbolic significance of the sukkah. I found this sermon from Rabbi Stuart W. Gershon, from Temple Sinai in Summit, N.J., near my hometown.
So what does God want us to think about on Sukkot? On Sukkot, God wants us to count all our blessings and to grow in our capacity for appreciation and gratitude. Why? Because it is our human nature to take our most important blessings for granted. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Humankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.” Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “[the person] who has forgotten to be thankful has fallen asleep in the midst of life.” Poet Marge Piercy writes, “…the discipline of blessings is to taste each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet and the salty, and be glad for what does not hurt.”
I don’t believe that there is a God that wants me to think about anything, but I like the idea of remembering to have gratitude.
Last week my family invited friends over for dinner on Friday night and I suggested we recognize Shabbat by lighting the candles and saying the blessings over the wine and bread. This family is not Jewish so I tried to explain what the blessings mean. It was hard not to use the word God. Later I thought about how I could articulate those blessings in a way that felt true to me.
I could say that I am grateful for the light of life within me and the people I love. I am grateful for healthy fruits and vegetables we have to eat. And I am grateful for the beautiful bread on our table. I could say those things and mean them.