Like a giant tent spread atop three tall pillars that support it and give it shape, the Jewish year is held up by the Shalosh R'galim, the "three pilgrimage festivals" Pesach commemorates the joy of liberation and freedom, Shavuot acknowledges the power of God's word revealed in Torah, and Sukkot reminds Israel of nights spent in fragile huts during its wilderness sojourn.
Pesach and Shavuot celebrate spiritual fulfillment, times when God anticipated Israel's needs and acted bountifully and graciously to fulfill them. We were granted political and national fulfillment on Pesach, when we were led out of the painful grip of slavery. Atop Sinai, we were given the wisdom of Torah, and we celebrate its spiritual and intellectual fulfillment on Shavuot. But Sukkot, in contrast, does not celebrate substantive fulfillment at all. Instead, it acknowledges the insecurity and uncertainty of desert nights spent in frail temporary shelters.
Stranger still is this fact: each of the pilgrimage festivals has an alternate name which alludes to its purpose and religious symbolism. Pesach is called Z'man Cheiruteinu, "the Time of Our Freedom." Shavuot is called Z'man Matan Torateinu, "the Time of our Receiving Torah." And the name that tradition ascribes to Sukkot is Z'man Simchateinu, "the Time of Our Joy."
Might not this be a better title for some other holiday? What, after all, is so joyous about the memories of being homeless and directionless in the desert? What did we have to celebrate when we had no home, no communal security or permanence, and no assurance that Israelite settlement would endure beyond the elusive boundary of the Promised Land? Yet our tradition insists that we make sense of this strange paradox. The challenge of this festival is for us to find fulfillment not in spite of our historic homelessness, but in the homelessness itself.
On a Shabbat that falls during Sukkot, the Torah reading is supplemented by a reading from M'gillat Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. In it, the writer, Kohelet insists that to concentrate on one's wealth, possessions, and accomplishments is ultimately a vain and futile exercise (Ecclesiastes 2:11). But for Kohelet, acknowledging the meaninglessness of material possessions need not lead one to a life of monasticism or self-denial. Instead, he urges us to enjoy eating, drinking, and the sensory pleasures, and to pursue learning and wisdom (see Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, 8:15, 9:7-10).
During the rest of the year, we make practical choices about which people and things we will allow to surround us in everyday life. We think about the material value and aesthetic appeal of the furnishings in our homes and offices. We strategically consider the utilitarian value of relationships with other people. Who is most important and will help my career most? What will look most impressive and have the greatest impact on my friends and neighbors? How can I portray the best image of my status and security?
On Sukkot, we make these decisions differently. At this season, following the perspective of Ecclesiastes, we see through the vanity and shallowness of social cache. We look past material value and concentrate instead on authentic relationships. Though we eat our meals in straw huts, we do so in the presence of people we love. We also invite the ushpizin, "biblical ancestors," whose spirit we invoke on this holiday as guests in our sukkot. The ushpizin, like ourselves, are wanderers, having meandered through time to join in our celebration. Their presence reminds us of the spiritual potential of a life spent wandering. Our ancestors' placelessness, strange though it seems, is precisely the thing that enabled them to build an eternal and ubiquitous Jewish nation.
As with all significant times in the Jewish calendar, our tradition reminds us of what it really means to be home. The wind blows through the thin walls of our sukkot, but we are consoled by the knowledge that true shelter comes from the nearness of those we love and the reassuring comfort of God. The psalmist writes:
O you who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and abide in the protection of Shaddai. . .
He will cover you with His pinions;
you will find refuge under His wings;
His fidelity is an encircling shield. . . .
Because you took the Eternal-my refuge,
the Most High-as your haven,
no harm will befall you,
no disease touch your tent.
Sukkot's joy-the characteristic that merits its being called Z'man Simchateinu-derives from a paradoxical sense of being at home within homelessness, a feeling of being secure in God's presence even when we have nowhere else to call our own. Even without a home of our own, the Jewish people can feel secure, sheltered by each other within the nearness of the Divine.
The Bible calls Sukkot Chag Ha-Asif, the "Feast of Ingathering" (Exodus 23:16 and 34:22.) This title refers to the fall harvest at this season, when crops are collected gratefully from fruitful fields. But "ingathering" comes with another layer of meaning as well. It reminds us of the prophet Zechariah's promise that the Messianic Era will see all of the world's nations make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to acknowledge the reality of God: "All who survive of all those nations," the prophet declares, "that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to Adonai of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths" (Zechariah 14:16).
On Sukkot, Ecclesiastes urges us to pause from our single-minded efforts of consuming and producing and to concentrate instead on the enduring values of reverence and wisdom. Zechariah invites us to look forward to the "ingathering" of the company of nations and the promising possibility that all earth's inhabitants can unite in the pursuit of peace. These Sukkot messages offer the soothing reminder that comfort and security can be found even in the frailest and most temporary of structures. Unlike what we build during the rest of the year, the sukkot that last barely a week can overflow with permanent, enduring meaning. The shelter we find under their rustling straw roofs is a most sacred harvest; it is, in the end, what makes this festival into a true Z'man Simchateinu.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.