Celebrating Sukkot in a pandemic

by Deborah Levisohn Stanhill.

This week, Jews around the world celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. After the introspection of the High Holidays, we open ourselves once again to the world around us in joyous celebration of the fall harvest season. One of the commandments (mitzvah) of the holiday is to build, and metaphorically live in, an intentionally fragile and partly open structure (sukkah), which calls to mind both the deconstructable dwellings of the Israelites in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, and temporary huts set up in fields during the harvest. During this week-long celebration, meals are traditionally eaten outside in the sukkah, and the holiday culminates with the prayer for rain, to ensure a bountiful winter growing season after the dry Middle East summer.

It’s a beautiful day. Sunny, 69 degrees, a little breezy. The perfect day to have an excuse to eat lunch outside. In October in New England, we know to treasure these days as they become fewer and fewer. And so the fulfillment of the mitzvah to eat in a sukkah during sukkot is not just easy today, but almost coincidental.

Confession. Sukkot is not my favorite holiday. In my twenties, I decided my sukkot mitzvah was to keep my grandmothers company and serve them dinner – inside. Granted, I have many warm memories of extended family sitting around the table in the sukkah, but trekking in and out, up and down stairs, balancing dishes, it’s a pain. And that’s before you add in figuring out how many layers you need to don to sit outside for any length of time in the cool fall temperatures. 

And yet, isn’t that the point? Building a temporary shelter, and symbolically living in it for a week, reminds us of our vulnerability. It connects us to the people of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years, dependent on God for their sustenance. It connects us to the modern State of Israel, where sukkot marks the (hoped for) beginning of the rainy season on which all life depends. It reminds us that we too, need God to provide rain in the midst of drought; that although we have prayed for life for the coming year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, life is fragile, and we must continue to look to God to protect and sustain us.

In the midst of pandemic, do we really need these reminders? Are we not already feeling vulnerable and dislocated? Do we need yet another holiday celebrated without our families? And yet, perhaps instead this is where Judaism shows its meaningfulness. The weekly, seasonal, yearly, rituals and customs transcend the every day, remind us that life is lived on a grander scale than our current struggles, that we should pay attention to each season, that there is beauty even in the difficult. 

A sukkah is a great place for lunch on a golden October day.

Deborah Levisohn Stanhill is Administrative Specialist in the Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern University

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