After the family dinners of Rosh Hashana and the somber seriousness of Yom Kippur, our emphasis is on the joyous celebration of the fall harvest and reveling in the togetherness of family and community. In the Torah, Sukkot was the festival par excellence, called “HeChag,” “The Festival.” It was, for our ancestors, the conclusion of the High Holyday season. We believed that just as God proclaims judgement upon the individual on Yom Kippur, so does God judge the righteousness of the community through the bounty of the gathered harvest. If the harvest was good, the community would not suffer through the winter and spring. If the community was sinful, it would be a long, cold and hungry winter. Sukkot is still the festival of Thanksgiving, when we offer our gratitude to God for the bounty of the land and the opportunity to live through another season.
As the rabbis connected Pesach to the Exodus and Shavuot to the giving of Torah on Sinai, so did they connect Sukkot to the wandering in the Wilderness, the forty year journey in which our ancestors built Sukkot in which to live. Where Pesach is about freedom and Shavuot is about responsibility, Sukkot is about the journey, the re-enactment of the Exodus journey to be specific. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “Passover celebrates a brave departure through a festive meal. Sukkot marks the hasty lunches and the endless wandering in the dessert. Sukkot expresses the deeper Exodus- the reflective, gritty days of marching during which a new generation grew up. Freedom came as the end result of pitching tents (Sukkot) and taking them down over the course of 14,600 days. Sukkot honors the forty-three thousand meals prepared on the desert trek, the cleanups, the washing of utensils. Passover celebrates a moment of pure triumph. Sukkot celebrates a seemingly endless forty-year journey. Passover is the holiday of faith; Sukkot is the holiday of faithfulness.”[i]
Thinking about Sukkot makes me think back to my children’s early years. From their first day in kindergarten through sixth grade, it was my job to pack their lunches. This task ended when they were in seventh grade and could buy lunch in the school cafeteria. By then, I was more than willing to give each of them a few dollars to buy their lunch rather than have to make it for them. Sally and I calculated that during those years, from 1986 through 1998, I made approximately 21,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! When I was making those sandwiches, putting in the chips, the cookies, writing the personalized notes on their napkins and their names on the paper bags, I found the daily task to be onerous. At the time I thought, “I just want to sit with my cup of coffee and read the paper. I don’t want to be bothered with this.” Now, twenty years later, how I miss those mornings when we would all have breakfast together and I had the opportunity to walk with them or drive them and their friends to school. What a precious gift it was to share the time with them, to hear their chatter, and to participate in their growing up. The problems they had in those days loomed so large in their eyes. How they yearn today for that absence of responsibility and the ability to take an occasional day off from school just to spend their day with Mommy and Abba. In retrospect, I miss those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so much! In retrospect, the journey was so sweet and precious.
On Erev Rosh Hashana, we read my favorite poem, “A Sacred Pilgrimage,” written by Rabbi Alvin Fine. Allow me to share it with you once again. It speaks to us of the journey we make during our lives. It is the poetic equivalent of Sukkot which, once again, reminds us of the long and arduous journey in the Wilderness. As “Sukkot celebrates the way of liberation- the march across a barren desert to freedom and the Promised Land,”[ii] so does this poem remind us of the journey we take from birth to life everlasting.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination.
But life is a journey; from childhood to maturity and youth to age:
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness- and often back again.
From health to sickness and back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion, and grief to understanding-
From defeat to defeat to defeat- until looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies not as some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination. But life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage- made stage by stage- from birth to death
To life everlasting.
[i] Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, page 97.
[ii] Ibid, page 96.