I used to think it was plain bad planning. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement with its 25 hour fast, ends, leaving everyone thoughtful, repentant, exhilarated and exhausted. Then, with just four days in between, Succot, the festival of Tabernacles, begins, with its requirement to build a Succah, cover it with greenery as Jewish law demands, decorate it, and, of course, cook, bake and welcome guests. How is anyone supposed to find the time and energy?
But I’ve changed my mind; I’ve come to see a wonderful continuity between Yom Kippur and Succot.
On leaving the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the High Priest prays for:
‘A year of grain, wine and oil…a year of dew, rain and warmth…a year in which God will bless our food and drink, a year of joy and tranquillity…’
The Talmud describes how in ancient times people decorated their Succah with just such produce: flasks of wine and oil, sacks of flour and fruits from the fields. It’s as if to say, ‘Thank you, God, for these gifts. Now, please, bless the earth with peace and plenty in the year ahead.’ Succot is ‘Chag Assif, the festival of gathering’ of the produce of the year; it’s thanksgiving made manifest. Blessed with a large garden, Nicky and I plan our vegetable patch with the Succah in mind. This year the entwined roots of our first home-grown celeriac will be our way of saying ‘thank you for the goodness of this earth,’ – an earth which desperately needs our prayers and care.
In another poignant parallel, we repeatedly remind ourselves of our frailty on Yom Kippur:
‘What are we? What is our life? Our capacity? Our strength? To what does our kindness or righteousness amount? Our days are just a breath breathed out…’
This mood, too, is embodied in the Succah. ‘Leave your permanent home for somewhere temporary,’ the Mishnah insists: ‘Live in a Succah; eat there,’ even sleep there if you can! The Succah, like life, is impermanent, vulnerable. When Babushka, the grandmother from Ukraine who’s staying with us, came rushing out to help me with the first swaying pieces of our Succah, I thought: what if we don’t currently have a ‘permanent’ home? What about people who’ve never had such a luxury? Succot is the festival of impermanence, of uncertainty, of refugees, as the Torah makes clear: ‘Remember how I made you live in Succahs for forty wilderness years.’
That’s why a Succah has to be a place of hospitality. We welcome the Ushpizin, our special guests, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, our refugee ancestors from the tyranny of Nimrod. But their spirits refuse to enter unless we invite contemporary visitors to our Succah too. The Zohar, the core text of the Jewish mystics, quotes Jeremiah: ‘I remember the hesed, the loving-kindness, of your youth.’ It explains this as referring to the spirit of Aaron who was known for his hesed, his warm and conciliatory manner. A Succah is a place of welcome and friendship.
Finally, a Succah should have beauty, just as Yom Kippur with its poetry and music is beautiful. Succot comes at ‘tekufat hashanah, the turn of the year’. It embodies the glory of the autumn, the red and yellow of changing leaves, the bronze and amber of the gardens and woodlands before winter. Our life may be frail, but it’s graced with wonder. In truth, life’s beauty is more intense precisely because we’re frail. This, too, we acknowledge on Yom Kippur:
‘Yet from us, mere passing shadows, mere flesh and blood, You, Eternal God, desire praise.’
We are mortal, yet privileged to know the immortality of wonder.