Today I officiated at a funeral. It is a mitzvah that I am both sad and honored to do, to help a family through a difficult transition.
Jewish funerals are simple, powerful rituals. We read a few psalms and passages from the Bible, we memorialize the person with a hesped [eulogy], we chant El Male Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and Kaddish. We place the body of the person gently in the ground, usually in a plain wooden box, and we cover it up with earth.
The sound of the clods of earth falling on a casket are distinct and unforgettable. Even when the person in the grave is a relative stranger it is a sobering sound. It says, “This is final.”
Each mourner ladles three shovels full of earth into the grave. They put the shovel back into the pile of fresh earth, and do not hand it to the next person. There are superstitions about this that mostly have to do with containing the “contagion” of death. Nowadays few people believe in a literal Angel of Death or that death is contagious, but they still avoid handing the shovel to another person, and in the shiva house, they cover the mirrors.
Sometimes people are shocked, when they hear that thus-and-so is “to keep the Angel of Death away.” But really, all these traditions are for making ritual so that people who feel lost will know what to do. Otherwise, how can anyone know what to do at such a time, except collapse and cry?
We tell stories about these things. It is always important to see the faces, to touch the hands, to be with people. The stories are just stories.
Israel and the California coast both have a “Mediterranean climate.” We have rain in the winter, and it is dry in the summer.
For California Jews, this means that we experience the seasons as if we lived in Israel. At the end of Sukkot, we will change a phrase in our daily Amidah prayer from a prayer for dew (the summertime prayer) to a prayer for wind and rain. And sure enough, a trifle ahead of schedule, there is rain in the forecast for Northern California. Ideally, it would wait a few days, but still — pretty close!
I love the way the calendar reconnects me to the natural world. The new day comes when the sun sets, not when the clock clicks over a line. I can look at the night sky, and know where I am in the Jewish month. Certainly, I can look everything up on hebcal.com, but the daily observance of Judaism pushes me to open my eyes, take a walk outside, and notice the world.
Some may say, “Ah, this is because the Jewish Calendar has its roots in the agricultural calendar of the Ancient Near East.” That’s true. But as with many things in Judaism, while it may have its roots in something impossibly long ago and far away, the effect of the observance in the here-and-now is fresh and urgent. Torah calls out to us to pay attention: pay attention to the world of which we are a part, pay attention to the people around us, pay attention to our own words and behavior.
In the spring of 2002, I broke up housekeeping and got ready to move to Jerusalem. I kept only a few boxes of things that were precious to me: photos, books, some family memorabilia, and a few valuable objects including some papers. I knew that I’d be moving around for the next few years, so I rented a storage bin in my home town . I could quit worrying, I thought: my things were safe and would be there when I was ready for them.
A couple of years later there was a fire in the storage building. Everything in my unit was ruined by smoke and water. All the photos and albums were stuck together with black goo. The books were mush. Most of it was not replaceable and did not have any “value” in the sense that insurance companies calculate such things. The only thing to do was pick through for a few salvageable bits and toss the rest of the stinking mess.
We want life to be predictable, but it is not. We want to be “careful” and keep bad things from happening, but bad things happen anyway. Between natural disasters and human error and the other zillion ways things can go wrong, a person could go crazy worrying. We can ask, “why do bad things happen to good people?” but really, the answer is that sooner or later, bad things happen to everybody.
The secret of the sukkah is that it is a temporary structure. It takes the terrible uncertainty of life and puts it front and center. In the sukkah, all you have is “now” because tomorrow it will be taken down (or blow over.) And it teaches us that “now” can be beautiful and joyful in its own right.
The megillah [scroll] for Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. You might ask, “Who wants to sit in the sukkah and read grumpy old Kohelet?” But you see, he knows what the sukkah knows: most of what we think is important is temporary, volatile, fragile. No one in their right mind would try to hoard goodies in sukkah; better to share them than have it all blow away.
Sukkot is a festival of rejoicing. Enjoy the sukkah, enjoy the food, enjoy the friends. Enjoy them right now. We cannot predict tomorrow, but if we live life as fully as we can, at least we will know that we did not waste the golden moment.
Sukkot may be the kick-back holiday of the Jewish year, but it is also a holiday with its share of special words. Here are some of the main ones you may hear. When I give two pronunciations, the first will be Sephardic Hebrew, the second the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation.
Remember, all “ch” sounds are like the German in Bach or a bit like a cat spitting. If you can’t make that sound, just go for an “h.” Pronouncing it as a K is not cool.
Sukkot sameach! – (soo-COAT sah-MAY-ach) or (SOOK-us sah-MAY-ach) means “Happy Sukkot!”
Chag sameach! – (CHAG sah-MAY-ach) Happy holiday!
Gut Yuntiff!– (Goot YUN-tif) – Happy holiday!
and you might still hear Shana tovah! (sha-NAH toe-VAH) – Happy New Year!
PEOPLE & THINGS
Sukkah – (soo-KAH) or (SOO-kah) is the little shack or booth with furniture in which we hang out for the holiday. Think “play house.”
Etrog – (EH-trog) is a citron. It looks like a big lemon. We shake it with the lulav. If it has a little twig sticking out of it, do NOT break it off. Your host might cry, because a broken pitom (PEE-tohm) renders most etrogim un-kosher.
Lulav – (LOO-lahv) is technically the closed frond of a date palm. It also is used to denote a bouquet of that palm frond with a branch of aravah (willow) and hadass (myrtle). During Sukkot, some Jews hold the lulav and etrog together, say blessings, and wave them around in 6 directions.
Ushpizin – (oosh-pee-ZEEN) or (oosh-PEE-zeen) means “visitors.” It refers not to the regular visitors, but traditionally to seven exalted guests one hopes will visit the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Modern Jews may also welcome Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Tamar, Ruth, and others. Pictures of them may decorate the sukkah.
If you could invite anyone in history to your sukkah, whom would you invite?
Soon we begin the celebration of Sukkot, and the heart of Sukkot is the mitzvah [commandment] of hospitality.
BIBLICAL ORIGIN – There are many examples in Torah of the patriarchs observing the mitzvah of hospitality. Possibly the most famous is in Genesis 18, when Abraham ran to meet his guests at Mamre, and hurried to feed them, even though he was still recovering from his circumcision.
LIFE AND DEATH – Hospitality in the Bible was not just being friendly, or inviting people over. If travelers could not find a safe place to rest, they could die. It was part of the social contract of the wilderness to welcome strangers. It was also part of that contract for strangers to behave themselves as guests. In much of Jewish history, Jews were not safe except in the homes and settlements of other Jews, and so it has remained a sacred duty to care for visitors, and to cherish hosts.
WHAT ABOUT TODAY? – Today hachasat orchim (literally, “bringing guests in”) remains a mitzvah. You might say, well, rabbi, we have hotels and restaurants for that! We have Jewish institutions for that! But today many of us are aching for personal connection. We are not nomads like Abraham, but often our families of origin and our old friends live far away. We human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection to others. There are few ways to better get to know someone than to visit them in their home, or to welcome them into yours. And yet many of us only see other Jews in synagogue, or maybe at events.
THE SUKKOT CONNECTION – I believe that Sukkot can play a special role in bringing hospitality back to the forefront in Jewish communities. During Sukkot, we don’t entertain in our houses, we entertain in the sukkah. It might be the sukkah at synagogue, or it might be a makeshift sukkah in our yard (for more about making do without a real sukkah, see my article Sick of Synagogue). True, some people have fancy sukkahs, but even the fanciest ones look pretty ridiculous. Sukkot takes us out of our homes and into the sukkah, where we can warm up to the idea of traditional hospitality. The simplicity of the sukkah reminds us that human interaction is more important than the furniture.
THE HOST– A Jewish host is responsible for making her guests welcome, and to see to it that they are not embarrassed in any way. It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests.
THE GUEST– A Jewish guest should do his best not to be a burden to his host. (This is not accomplished by prefacing demands with “I don’t want to be any trouble, but…”) Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Do not embarrass the host by asking rude questions or criticizing. After being a guest, send a thank you note, or at least an email. For more about being a guest, see 5 Ways to be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest.
THE MAIN THING– Rabbi Nachman of Braslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” It is easy to get stuck thinking that I don’t want to have anyone over because my apartment isn’t nice enough, or my cooking isn’t fancy, or because I fear some other judgment that a guest may bring. To conquer these fears, start small: invite someone to a Sukkot picnic, or invite someone you are sure will be kind. If they say “no” don’t take it personally – people say “no” for a lot of reasons – but invite someone else. If you really can’t see opening your home, invite them for coffee! But I challenge you (and myself!) to use this Sukkot as a time to reach out to other Jews. And if you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!
And I am pretty sure that someone was thinking, yes, but that’s not really Sukkot. You want the terminology and stuff, right? So now we’ll talk about that.
WHAT IS SUKKOT?Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh]. It’s also the Jewish harvest holiday that follows the High Holy Days.
WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on the evening of Sept 18, 2013. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.
WHY DO WE DO THIS?Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.
HOW DO WE OBSERVE SUKKOT? Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.
WHAT IS A LULAV? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held alongside an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.
ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?Yes! There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH?Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:
Go on a picnic with family or friends.
Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
Get to know your neighbors.
Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.
Rejoice in the natural world, however you best do that!
Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality. Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!
I wrote this piece several years ago. Some things have changed about my situation (I have health insurance! We got married! DOMA went away!) However, the basic message is still good – disability can change how you approach mitzvot. It’s OK to find a way to participate without it having to meet some artificial standard of “perfection.”
I woke up this morning aching again. This has been going on for years, gradually getting worse. Some days it takes a couple of hours of warm-up to walk. Since I have had minimal health insurance and have been terrified of losing it, I have not investigated the aches too closely. I hope that will change soon, now that my marriage is recognized by the Feds (no more DOMA, Thank you Supreme Court.)
Why am I bothering readers with this? Because the mystery aches, along with some old orthopedic problems, are the reason I am not building a sukkah this week. Putting it up and taking it down is just too much, especially with my classes coming so soon. I am quite certain I am not alone in this.
What do you do when a mitzvah is simply beyond you? I lean on my community. I will help a friend decorate her sukkah, and enjoy sitting in it with the people who come. And I can feel OK about that, because I will help make folks feel welcome there. Also I learn where the sukkah and sort-of-sukkahs are, and I help others find them.
I have been enthusiastic talking about Sukkot on this blog. I love Sukkot. But I didn’t want a reader to be sitting out there thinking that because you can’t afford a sukkah, or you have arthritis, that you are somehow falling short this Sukkot. Hospitality comes in many forms, and so does participation in this holiday.
Sukkot sameach! If you live in the East Bay, I’d be delighted to meet you in one of the several Sukkot available to us. Enjoy the holiday in all the ways available to you!