On experiencing Sukkot with joy

9838051105_07f90ed515Dear Congregation Beth Israel community,

I’d like to share with you a teaching about Sukkot. (Those who came to morning meditation today have already heard this; forgive me for the repetition.)

Our sages have asked: what is a sukkah? Some said: it’s a remembrance of the tents we lived in during the exodus from Egypt. Others said: it’s a reminder of the cloud of glory which traveled with us during the exodus from Egypt. Still others said: it’s a harvest house, a reminder of the temporary dwellings our agricultural ancestors used to build in their fields during harvest time. And still others said: it is temporary, beautiful, vulnerable, a place for welcoming guests and connecting with people (both those who are in our lives, and those ancestors whom we remember with love) — it is an embodied metaphor for human life. Like a sukkah, each life is temporary; each life is beautiful; each life is vulnerable; each life is enriched by the presence of our loved ones, both living and imagined. Into every life a little rain must fall, but we have the opportunity to greet even that rain with joy.

Here’s another teaching, from Rabbi Alan Lew, in the final chapter of his book This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (the last chapter is a chapter on Sukkot.) Rabbi Lew writes:

“You shall dwell in booths for seven days,” the Torah enjoins us, “so that you will know with every fiber of your being that your ancestors dwelt in booths during their sojourn in the wilderness when they were leaving Egypt.” This is a commandment we fulfill not with a gesture or word, but with our entire body. We sit in the sukkah with our entire body. Only our entire body is capable of knowing what it felt like to leave the burden of Egyptian oppression behind, to let go of it. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. The rot of this word is tzar, a narrowness. Egypt was the narrow place. Only the entire body can know what it felt like to be pushed from a place of dire construction into a wilderness, a spacious, open world. Only the body can know what it felt like to be born. Only the body can know the fullness of joy, and this is a commandment that can only be fulfilled with joy. All the holidays and all their rituals are to be observed with joy, but there is a special joy, an extra measure of joy, connected with Sukkot…

In the sukkah, a house that is open to the world…the illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another. And when we speak of joy here, we are not speaking of fun. Joy is a deep release of the soul… Joy is any feeling fully felt, any experience we give our whole being to. Any moment in our life fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy.

The commandment to rejoice in the sukkah isn’t telling us to “put on a happy face” — it’s an invitation to get out of our houses and be outside in this beautiful place where we live, to recognize that all of the structures we build around ourselves are ultimately temporary, and to find a profound joy in that.¬† The seasons change: we can take joy in that. Our lives change: we can take joy in that. It’s harvest season: we can take joy in that. We’ve made it through the Days of Awe: we can take joy in that!

Join us tonight for a vegetarian/dairy potluck in the sukkah at 5:30, and tomorrow morning for a Shabbat service which will feature music, teaching, some extra explanations, the psalms of Hallel, and a Torah study on Kohelet (a.k.a. Ecclesiastes, the scroll assigned to this festival.) Weather permitting, we’ll make our kiddush and study Torah in the sukkah.

Wishing everyone moadim l’simcha, a joyous immersion in this festival of Sukkot, and Shabbat shalom, a sweet and joyous Shabbat!

Rabbi Rachel

(Photo source: flickr.)


  1. Thank you for your beautiful posts. Can you please give me the author of the first teaching in this post (“Our sages have asked: what is a sukkah? … “. I would like to chant it for part of my haftorah Oct. 7, 2017 and want to give proper credit.

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