Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, are serious occasions for soul searching and the often painful work of fixing our broken relationships and atoning for our past transgressions. On the other hand, the eight-day-long holiday of Sukkot — which begins Sunday night at sundown —is a festival of pure joy, gratitude and celebration.
In the Torah, Sukkot is described as a harvest holiday, a time for giving thanks for the Earth’s bounty. Our ancestors would construct temporary booths in their fields, called sukkot, and stay in them during the week of the harvest. Modern Jews keep this custom alive by constructing sukkot in our yards and spending the week praying, eating our meals and even sleeping in them. We invite guests into our sukkot — both family and friends — as well as symbolically inviting the spirits of our ancestors, referred to as ushpizin, to dwell with us and share in our joy.
Sukkot brings us close to nature. By forcing us out of our homes and into temporary, fragile dwellings that are open on at least one side, we reconnect with the world around us. One of the most powerful requirements for a sukkah is that one must be able to see the night sky through gaps in the roof. On Sukkot we affirm that in order to be a truly religious person, one must have at least a few nights of the year when we lay out under the stars and look up with wonder.
There is a great emphasis on making our observance of Sukkot as beautiful as possible. The sukkah will usually be decorated with colorful posters, paper-chains and other ornaments. Traditional Jews will take great care and often go to significant expense to purchase a particularly fine lulav and etrog, the symbolic bundle of palm, willow and myrtle branches and the delicious smelling citron fruit used in the ancient holiday rituals. Sukkot is a celebration for all the senses.
Finally, Sukkot helps to cultivate within us a sense of gratitude. By leaving the comforts of our homes, we are reminded of how many blessings we commonly take for granted. We also have time to reflect on the fact that far too many people live every day without such comforts. By the close of the holiday, we are more sensitive both to the gifts that we have and to our responsibility to bring more justice and equality to all people.
A version of this article first appeared on Culver City Patch in 2011.