The distribution of Jewish festivals around the year is scarcely an example of equality and balance. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of Tishrei, the fast of Yom Kippur follows on the tenth, and the eight days of Succot begin on the fifteenth. There’s hardly time to breath, let alone cook.
The tradition is to start building the succah, a small booth or hut, straight after the fast. I love this! We take our contemplations in our heart, a hammer and scissors in our hands, and turn our inner resolutions into practical actions.
For a succah is special; it can be as small as ten handbreadths high, or as tall as twenty cubits, so small just one person can sit in it, or big enough for a hundred. The roof must be of leaves and branches and the walls can be constructed out of virtually anything. But whatever the case, a succah must be built with affectionate respect because it’s a holy space, and these are some of the reasons why.
A succah is a place of humility. As the Mishnah says, a house is keva, permanent, but a succah is ara’i, temporary, like life itself, reminding us of the passing of our days, a thought set deeply in our hearts in these chastening times.
A succah is a space of grace. The earliest sources speak of noi succah, the beauty of the succah. They tell of decorating it with corn and fruits, flasks of wine, sacks of flour and jars of oil. For Succot is a harvest celebration and the succah is a place of thankfulness for the produce of the year. (Like many Jewish gardeners, we grow for the Succah as much as for the pot.)
A succah is a place of joy, built to mark the happiest of the festivals, the chag par excellence, as the Mishnah tells: Jerusalem was lit with lamps all night; the rabbis and the people danced all night. Making the succah is itself a joy too; it’s the paramount example of simchah shel mitzvah, the happiness to be found in following God’s commandments.
A succah is a space of connection between humankind and nature. We recognise our indebtedness and dependence, our need for the gifts of the soil. It teaches us the most urgent of contemporary lessons, to respect and reverence God’s earth.
A succah is a place of welcome. One brings guests to eat there, spiritual and temporal, summoning one’s ancestors, starting with Sarah and Abraham. But they refuse to come unless one invites friends and neighbours as well. For the succah reminds us to offer shelter, especially to refugees, as the Torah says, ‘For I [God] made the Children of Israel dwell in Succahs when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,’ and as it says also, ‘For you know the soul of the stranger.’
A succah is a space of refuge, as it says in the Psalms, ‘You hide me in Your Succah on the day of evil.’ Impermanent, easily blown away by a strong wind, it’s scarcely a castle or fortress. But it offers a deeper protection, foretelling a world in which everyone will be able to dwell safely ‘under their vine and fig tree.’
For a succah represents a tranquillity, succat shalom, the canopy of God’s peace, towards which the whole world should aspire. The mystics call the succah Tsila Di’Mehemanuta, the shade of the Faithful One, for it represents God’s protection, so badly needed by so many until the dawn of that better, future era of universal harmony.
So build with joy. If you have the opportunity, do make, or share in making, your own succah. If not, please help creating that most important of all succahs, a world where humanity, nature and God are all at peace with each other, – a task which needs the co-operation of us all