You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year (Exodus: 34:22).
On this Shabbat during Sukkot we read a passage that tells us a name for the festival and very little else about the holiday. Called Chag HaAsif, or Feast of Ingathering, our sages tell us this refers to the agricultural activity going on at this time in our ancient homeland, specifically the grape harvest. This is one of four names by which Sukkot is known, including also Feast of Booths (Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16), "a festival of the Eternal" (Numbers 29) and "The Festival" par excellence in the Mishnah. At the end of this week, on Sh'mini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, we begin the months of praying for the rains that will sustain another season of growth in the Land of Israel. "Your power is vast, Adonai, renewing life against all odds. You cause the wind to shift and rain to fall" (Translation from Mishkan T'filah).
We are commanded to dwell in sukkot, whose open roofs and impermanent walls bring us that much closer to the elements. The s'chach, natural roofing materials, let through the sun and views to the stars, and the rains as well. "If it rains on Sukkot, water drips onto the diners…then one is exempt from eating there," writes Rabbi Irving Greenberg. "The obligation to dwell in the sukkah is suspended in a situation of discomfort. This is unique among commandments." (The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, 104). For some of us, that could severely curtail our ability to celebrate. Although our feelings of being at the mercy of the weather may be acute during Sukkot, it is meant to be a time of great joy.
As in the harvesting of crops, we are sustained through tough times when we gather together. The Hebrew root alef-samech-pey means "gather" and often refers in the Hebrew Bible to a gathering of people. The people of Houston and many other communities throughout the United States and beyond have gathered in those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and others stood ready to take in the hundreds of thousands fleeing Houston as Rita approached. It often takes tragedy on a massive scale for us to appreciate our fragility and impotence in the face of forces beyond our control. Sukkot reminds us that we do not have to wait until tragedy to accept the impermanence of human construction. When we feel vulnerable, we are instructed to gather together and find strength in each other. As we come together in the most fragile and temporary of dwelling places to celebrate Chag HaAsif with our families, friends, and neighbors, we are reminded that in community there is sanctuary. We are at the mercy of the elements, and when they force us to do so, it is time to seek the safety and sanctity that can best be found when we gather together.
- Why do you think the Mishnah calls sukkot "The Festival"? What do you think is the most important part of this festival celebration?
- One custom of Sukkot is to symbolically invite biblical ancestors to visit the sukkah and to celebrate their legacy. Who are the people you'd like to symbolically honor at your Sukkot table today and what traits would you like to emulate?
- If you have never built a sukkah before, there are kits available for purchase online that require minimal assembly. Consider purchasing one this season to put up next year. Search the net using keywords "sukkah kit" to see some of the many designs that can be shipped to your door.