The Torah makes it very clear that we are to be joyful on Sukkot. We read in Deuteronomy, “V’samachta b’chagecha … You shall rejoice in your festival … v’haita ach sameach … and you shall have nothing but joy.” Given that Sukkot goes by another name, z’man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing,” it is no surprise that these verses have become the major theme song of our festival. And in fact, the commandment to rejoice applies to everyone in our communities. The Torah specifies that the servant, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan must be included. Everyone deserves to celebrate.
But what are we actually celebrating on Sukkot? Unlike our other festivals of Passover and Shavuot, when we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, there’s no major Biblical event to commemorate at this time of year.
In Leviticus, God provides two main reasons for observing this holiday. One is to mark the very end of the summer harvest; the other is to remember that God made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when God took them out of Egypt. So we have a twofold purpose for our celebration: to gather in the last of the season’s harvest and to remember our ancestors’ wandering in the desert for forty years.
The early rabbis of our tradition wanted to flesh out the latter explanation in order to better understand how to observe Sukkot. In Sukkah 11b, we find two opinions about what the sukkot actually were. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkot were not booths, but rather the Ananei HaKavod, God’s clouds of glory, which surrounded the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness, protecting them from the elements and guiding them on their journey. A midrash in Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael goes even further, saying “There were seven clouds: four to each side of them, one above them and another below them. A further cloud would pass in front of them leveling the valleys and flattening the mountains.”
But according to Rabbi Akiva, the sukkot were really just temporary dwellings. At the heart of this disagreement is essentially the question: on Sukkot, are we celebrating something miraculous and other-worldly or something more practical, more matter-of-fact?
Both answers, though vastly different, indicate that Sukkot is about recognizing our vulnerability as much as about being joyful. The Israelites, having escaped from slavery to then wander through a harsh, unsettled environment, felt incredibly vulnerable, even despite God’s presence. According to Rabbi Eliezer, we celebrate the protection they experienced from the dangers of the desert, and according to Rabbi Akiva, we celebrate the resourceful way in which the Israelites were able to make it through this tough experience.
Even the agricultural reason for celebrating Sukkot, gathering in the last of the season’s abundance, hints at the vulnerable nature of our lives: we begin to pray for rain, recognizing that our sustenance and livelihoods constantly hang in the balance.
This week especially, I’ve been sitting with the question: how can there be joy amidst this vulnerability? Why are we commanded to be joyful at the same time that we are forced to face our own fragility?
After Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, this country is being forced, yet again, to reckon with just how vulnerable survivors of sexual assault have to be when they seek justice. And we’ve seen that their vulnerability leaves them open to ridicule, doubt, and threats, and often without justice. In Dr. Ford’s case, she had to share her vulnerability before the entire world, and was terrified.
Regardless of whether we identify with Dr. Ford’s experience, we are all vulnerable somewhere. We are born vulnerable to the physical world and to one another, and naturally, this is a hard feeling to sit with. When we are vulnerable, we are exposed and we are left open to whatever may come our way. Not being fully in control of our lives is frightening, and it’s natural to try to avoid or numb the fear and insecurity vulnerability brings up for us, but that doesn’t usually make us safer nor our situations any more resolved.
And yet, we have this holiday that asks us to recognize where we feel vulnerable and to sit with or in that vulnerability for a full week while we celebrate. How do we actually do this? What might we gain?
Well, when we feel most exposed and share that vulnerability with others, even amidst the pain or the backlash, we also find that we are not alone. There are other people who understand what we’re going through, who’ve either been there themselves or who care enough to be there for us. It’s this point of shared vulnerability that can lead to some of the strongest, most authentic bonds we may know and can help us move forward. I strongly believe that this capacity for empathy and connection is worth being grateful for and celebrating. This is why we celebrate Sukkot by sharing meals, praying and singing together in sukkahs. We face the world openly, but together.
Sukkot also reminds us that as the seasons change, so can we and so can the world. As our vulnerabilities force us to respond, we as individuals and as communities must continue to clarify what and who matters most to us and what values and truths we stand for. With time and work, it becomes possible to anticipate abundance again.
Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation of sukkot as the clouds of glory can help us see that strength does not have to come in the form of brick walls or metal roofs or tough exteriors, but it often comes by more delicate means like our capacity to hold one another in our experiences and say, “I believe you, I’m with you,” which like the clouds in the desert, has the power to level valleys and flatten mountains.
My hope for us this Sukkot and this season is that we learn how to hold each other in our shared vulnerabilities, recognizing the opportunities we have to be there for one another as we each go through our own journeys through times of wilderness and times of abundance. As we pray for rain and celebrate the Torah this week, I hope we can all be open to the possibilities of greater connection, love, growth, joy, and God-willing, healing and justice.
Ilana Zietman is a rabbinical student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.