Eat, Drink, and Be Merry – Even in a Pandemic

Yom Rishon shel Sukkot, Holidays Leviticus 23:33-44

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Max Chaiken

Aligned with the rhythm of our earth turning on its axis, our season of returning (t’shuvahT'shuvahתְּשׁוּבָה"Return;" The concept of repentance and new beginnings, which is a continuous theme throughout the High Holidays. ) continues its turn. We move from the introspection and repentance of Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, to the holiday of Sukkot. Our fall festival, also known as z’man simchateinu (our time of happiness), compels to celebrate and rejoice during this sacred time.

As one might expect, the traditional Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot provides instructions for observing the festival, beginning with a reminder that Sukkot begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Lev. 23:34). It continues with practices we still observe today, including bringing the lulavlulavלוּלָבA date palm frond with myrtle and willow sprigs attached; used in Sukkot rituals. and etrogetrogאֶתְרוֹג"Citron." Lemon-like fruit used in Sukkot rituals. together (Lev. 23:41) and dwelling in sukkotSukkotסֻכּוֹתSeven-day fall agricultural festival associated with temporary booths or huts. , the same booths our ancestors dwelt in when God brought them out of Egypt (Lev. 23:42-43). 

We are instructed to observe the festival “when you have gathered from the bounty of the land” (Lev. 23:39, translation mine), tying the celebration of Sukkot to the fall harvest. Once again, the turning of our world literally sustained our lives the past year, feeding us through last winter. The summer months brought growth, allowing us to harvest the bounty of our fields for the winter to come. Thus, during Sukkot, we give thanks for the miracle of preserving and reproducing life through partnership with nature and the Divine.

This is an especially powerful message during this time of pandemic and social turmoil. Our world can be a painful, uncertain, and scary place, and none of us are guaranteed another turn around the sun. But in the Jewish tradition of celebrating and honoring the life we’re blessed to have, we can rejoice and show gratitude by reconnecting with nature and spending time in a sukkah, which symbolizes life’s uncertainty and fragility.

The traditional M’gillah m'gillahמְגִלָּה"Scroll;" One of the five m'gillot (plural) in the Bible: Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation and Ecclesiastes. associated with Sukkot is the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). This book of wisdom, traditionally attributed to King Solomon in his later years, reminds us of life’s temporary nature and the importance of rejoicing in what we have:

So what is the good of his toiling for the wind?... Only this, I have found is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him; for that is his portion (Ecclesiastes 5:15, 17; JPS translation).

This premise succinctly reappears in another verse two chapters later:

I therefore praised happiness. For the only good a person can have under the sun is to eat and drink and enjoy. That much can accompany them from their labors, through the days of life that God has given them under the sun (Ecclesiastes 8:15, translation mine).

Even in a world full of sickness, pain, scarcity, and death, and even as we work hard to protect those most marginalized by this pandemic and dismantle systemic oppression, Sukkot reminds us: Rejoice! Celebrate life and hard work, abundance and gratitude.

As an expression of that gratitude, the Torah commands us: “Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Eternal” (Lev. 23:36). Our Israelite ancestors communicated with the Divine – asking forgiveness, making amends, giving gratitude – through sacrificial offerings of animal or grain. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, however, we have substituted sacrifice with verbal prayer: avodah she’balev, the work or worship of the heart.

Something that sparked my imagination, however, is the Hebrew phrase commanding “isheh l’Adonai,” or “bring a fire offering to God.” Isheh means fire, so one could read this commandment as, “You shall bring fire for God.” When we consider this metaphorically, fire can represent light, warmth, and passion, telling us that there are so many types of fire that we can bring forward during this time of our happiness.

What passion will we bring to others? What values will we kindle in ourselves and our world to bring this festival’s happiness to life? Where can we shine the light and warmth of our spiritual fires during this time that can seem so dark? These are the questions I will bring to my sukkah this year, and I encourage you to bring similar questions this year as well.

May this season of abundance remind us all to give thanks and may the fires of our spirit affirm that each one of us has something to offer.