The Village Spirit: Discomfort Creates Mindfulness During Sukkot Holiday

sukkah by Rachel Barenblat
By Rabbi Max Weiss
Oak Park Temple

The Jewish community just completed the cycle of fall holidays, the last of which was the holiday of Sukkot. Our Christian neighbors often call this day the Feast of Tabernacles or the Festival of Booths. It is an odd holiday, where we are instructed by our tradition to construct booths, called Sukkahs, and dwell in them for a week in celebration of the harvest and in commemoration of the time we spent wandering in the wilderness following our enslavement in Egypt. It also serves to make us more mindful of the less fortunate in our communities.

The booths must be temporary structures that are open enough to the sky to allow in starlight at night. In Chicago this year, using our Sukkah was an exercise in discomfort. It was cold. It was rainy. It was windy. To be outside was unpleasant and yet, for the Jewish community, it was required.

This Sukkot reminded me of my first celebration of the holiday as a rabbi. My wife and I, newly wed, dutifully constructed the Sukkah in our yard near Philadelphia. We decorated it with fruits and branches and made the walls out of white fabric. It was beautiful. That night our lovely Sukkah, which apparently was constructed much like a giant box kite, lifted from the ground in a wind storm and smashed against the side of our rental home, knocking out the power.

Sukkot and our temporary displacement from our warm homes reminds us just how impermanent the structures on which we rely really are. This holiday, coming as it does just at the beginning of fall when the seasons begin to turn, also reminds us how fortunate those of us are who have warm homes in which to live in. We are forced out of our comfort, just as we should be settling in, as a reminder that we need to be vigilant and make sure that the warmth and security we take for granted are available to all people.

In Hebrew, Sukkot is called Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We are required to celebrate in gladness even through the discomfort of changing seasons. The joy we are supposed to feel comes from the activities that take place inside of the booth, the gathering of friends, the prayers of gratitude, and the presence of loved ones. We are reminded of the things we control, our relationships, even as we are confronted by the reality of how little control we have over the changing weather. We also recognize that our relationships can be an incredible force for good and unity in our world when we use them for positive change.

Photo: Flickr user Rachel Barenblat