SOME “MAZEL” FOR SUCCOTH –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
My friend and former colleague Rabbi Meyer Heller used to feel sorry for the Succoth holiday which comes this week. “Succoth has no mazel” was how he put it. “People are all shuled out from the High Holidays and don’t want another religious occasion four days later.” For many people, of course, that is still true. And it is unfortunate, because this yomtov with its decorated tabernacle and its guests both real and imaginary offers a happy and relaxed celebration. Quite a contrast to the serious soul searching of Yom Kippur. In fact, Succoth is the only holiday where the Torah instructs us v’hayita akh sameyach – “just be happy!”
So what is Succoth? Historically, Succoth celebrates harvest time. Reapers erected booths in the field to save time while gathering in earth’s bounties. Those booths recalled the temporary shelters our ancestors lived in during the Exodus. Just as Divine power helped us gain freedom then, so it helps reap nature’s bounty in more settled times. And small homemade sheds express our gratitude for freedom, for nature, for history. Here and there, some people like to sleep in their succah. Everyone who has a succah eats meals there. And we invite guests – ushpizin as they are called in Aramaic. Maybe you saw a delightful Israeli film by that name a few years ago, in which the guests turned out to be two escaped convicts who knew the host before he became religious!
Besides the friends who are our guests in the succah, we also invite imaginary guests – our Biblical forebears, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David – seven in all, one for each day of Succoth. That’s right, it is a seven-day holiday both in Israel and the Diaspora.
So why do our calendars show nine days? Because a separate yomtov – Shmini Atzeret, literally Eighth day of Assembly — starts on the eighth day, as prescribed in the Torah. And the ninth day in the Diaspora is another separate holiday, Simchat Torah – Rejoicing in the Law – which gets combined with the Eighth day in Israel and in Reform congregations. More about that next week.
Meanwhile, take a little time to build a succah in your backyard and celebrate in it Wednesday night. Some handy prefab units are now on the market, that save time doing this. Personally I prefer to build our 8 X 8 shed every year and cover it with palm fronds. Depending on where you live, that covering called s’khakh, which must consist of cut-off branches, could be palm fronds, or evergreens, or as in my middle-western boyhood corn stalks. It connects us to the earth. Yet it is not so solid that you can’t look through it and see the stars. Earth, sky and people – all G-d’s bounty.