Sukkot has always been my favorite holiday, and I know I’m not alone in that. I mean it’s called zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing, for a reason, right?!
It’s a very special time. Here in the Deep South, even the weather rejoices in Sukkot, as the blazing hot summer temps begin to give way to cool evening air. People are genuinely happy and gather together in our sukkot—finely decorated shanties with a “roof” complete with its purposeful gaps, allowing us always to remember the God who “had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
God is serious about this rejoicing thing, too. Passover has no commandment to rejoice associated with it. Shavu’ot? Only once are we told to rejoice. Sukkot? Three times we are commanded to have fun. I don’t know about you, but when God tells me to have fun, once is all I need to hear, so three times says we better take this party seriously!
Beyond the joyous celebration of the festival, there is a depth of meaning that I also find to be nearly unmatched by any other event in the cycle of God’s appointed times.
We could discuss the meaning of the arba minim, the four species described in Leviticus 23. The etrog, the citron fruit, the lulav, the branch of the date palm, hadasim, three myrtle branches, and aravot, two twigs of the willow, add a unique and beautiful element to the prayer services as we follow the commandment to “rejoice before the LORD” by waving them in his presence. There is more to that waving than, well…just waving. It’s a dedication of our entire bodies in submission to God. Each species refers to a part of a human being and how it should be surrendered to our Father in heaven. The etrog refers to the heart, the place of wisdom and understanding, to love God and our neighbor. The branch of the palm connects to the spine, a reminder to walk with uprightness before the LORD. The myrtle corresponds to the eyes, symbolizing our responsibility always to guard that upon which we allow ourselves to gaze. The willow represents the lips, which should be used for prayer and edification and never for gossip, slander, or tearing down another. We get all that from four plants!
The sukkah itself contains a multitude of powerful spiritual illustrations as well. One could write a blog a week for a year and only scratch the surface of meaning in the acts of constructing and dwelling in the sukkah.
This year, however, after experiencing a very personally significant Yom Kippur, I thought I’d share one interpretation that brings a particularly emotional awareness to the time we’ll spend in the sukkah this year.
In my mind, Yom Kippur is about the furthest one could get from rejoicing. As the daytime services give way to evening, there’s no doubt that a certain joy begins to emerge as we consider the promised result of our repentance and start to see the light at the end of the tunnel of our twenty-five-hour observance of Yom Kippur. For the most part, it’s a long, emotional process of confrontation. We face our failures and falling short as we repeatedly confess them before our Father. One cannot help but feel the certain sense of having let him down when forced to spend time declaring them— with all he has done for me, how could I have fallen so short?
If I allow my mind to wander a bit, I find a connection here to a tangible and earthly example. As a teenager, I was not always the most obedient and godly representation of a son. I’m sure no one can relate, but humor me! I remember in those moments of failure, having to have discussions with my father—hard discussions, embarrassing talks, and difficult realizations. My dad loved me, he always wanted to be proud of me, but I had let him down. I had, through bad choices and behavior, brought dishonor and disrespected him and his reputation. That was really hard to face, and it hurt me to have hurt him. But…
After the conversations, my dad had an amazing way of letting me know that even in my failure, I was his son, and he loved me. I expressed my sadness and remorse at having failed to honor him through my actions, and he would say these words, “It’s okay, I forgive you.” We hear these words in the Yom Kippur liturgy, drawn directly from the Torah, when God says to Israel, “Salachti,” “I have forgiven.”
That statement, “I forgive you” from my dad, was important. But there was a second part that I remember just as much. It was the embrace that followed. Having hurt my dad, or at least disappointed him, and having talked (or cried) through it, he would stand, open his arms, and hug me. There were no words required there. The hug said it all, “It’s okay. We’re good. Please try to do better. But we’re good. Let’s go forward together.”
My dad’s embrace had three sides. As our chests connected, our hearts met. As his arms wrapped around me on both sides, I was surrounded by his love. It was a powerful moment.
What in the world does that have to do with Sukkot, you ask? It’s easy and powerful to see it. The sukkah is the hug from heaven. Think about it. After these difficult days of Yom Kippur, of failure confrontation, of saying, “I’m sorry I let you down, Dad,” we step into this simple three-sided structure, and it’s like the embrace of our Father in heaven. The place where God says, “I know you failed, I heard your words, I have forgiven you. Now…let’s spend some time together. Let’s reconnect. Let’s rejoice. Because I want you to know, son or daughter, we’re good. Please try to do better. But we’re good.”
For us, as his children, the sukkah says, “My Father loves me.” For our Father, the sukkah says, “My child is back.” From there, we move forward together, and that is worth rejoicing about!
Chag Sukkot Sameach!