Sukkot’s Powerful Lessons of Humility and Simplicity
Today is the first full day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or The Festival of Tabernacles. The holiday, which began at sundown yesterday, will last until nightfall on October 15. Arriving just five days after Yom Kippur, one of the most solemn and introspective holidays on the Jewish calendar, Sukkot is a chance to remember, rejoice, and connect to creation and the Creator.
Significance of Sukkot
The holiday’s religious significance comes from the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. When they were released from slavery, they wandered the Sinai desert searching for a homeland for forty years. According to the Book of Leviticus, God gave the command to Moses that the people should live in sukkahs, small shelters covered in plant materials, for seven days, so that the future generations would know that God made the Israelites live in booths when they were brought from Egypt.
But Sukkot is more than just a religious holiday of remembrance; it is “unreservedly joyful” and is commonly referred to in Jewish prayer and literature as Z’man Simchateinu, the Season of Our Rejoicing. And while the exodus from Egypt is certainly something to rejoice, the joy of the holiday also comes from its historic ties to agricultural harvest festivals and celebrating the gifts the Earth has to offer. Like other harvest holidays, Sukkot is a way of giving thanks for all that God has provided.
Because the religious and historical significance of Sukkot is so connected to wilderness and agriculture, there are important lessons that can be gleaned about the human relationship to creation.
Sukkot’s Lesson of Humility and Dependence
For the eight days and seven nights of Sukkot, Jews traditionally celebrate, eat, and even sleep in the sukkah. The sukkah normally has enough of a covering so that during the day there is more shade than sun, but not so much that the stars are hidden at night. The idea is to recreate the experience of dwelling in the wilderness. And it’s this experience that is a powerful reminder to the Jews who celebrate Sukkot about humans’ place in the universe.
“We think so much of ourselves as humans, but Sukkot comes to teach us that we’re not the pinnacle of the universe,” Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, Jewish Ecologist and teacher at Hampshire College told us. “There are lots of lessons you can draw from Sukkot, but one of the major lessons is about not depending on humans and depending on God.”
In a world where our night sky is frequently hidden from us, where we are so focused on the task directly ahead, the simple act of looking up into the heavens is a powerful reminder. It’s a reminder that creation is bigger than we can even comprehend and that, no matter what, the faithful stars will always be looking down at us.
Sukkot’s Lesson of Simplicity
There’s a lesson that comes with the lesson of humility and dependence — a permission to stop trying so hard and reconnect to what’s important. Jews who celebrate Sukkot often see it as a time to connect to the “simple pleasures” of life. They build and decorate the sukkah, eat festive meals, listen to music and poetry, and spend time with their family and community members. They detach from the daily entertainments, the trips to the mall, and the obsession with high-tech gadgets.
“It’s such a symbol of non-consumerism,” said Rabbi Bernstein. She described her decision to decorate her sukkah with flowers that are at the end of their season, and her plans to spend the week listening to singers, jazz musicians, and poets. “There’s just something that’s so simple and joyful and accessible about the whole thing.”
In American culture, where holidays are really seen as a chance to buy new gear, consume feasts, and travel long distances, the simplicity of Sukkot is like a breath of fresh air. It’s easier to see how spending time in nature with friends and family can make you happier than store bought goods.
There are many ecological lessons to be drawn from Sukkot, but it’s nice, after the heaviness of Yom Kippur to simply celebrate the holiday instead of dwell on all of its meanings. So go outside, witness the stars, connect with your community, and thank God for all the good you’ve experienced this year.
Here’s wishing everyone a joyous and inspired Sukkot!
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