January 16, 2019

Sukkot: The most romantic of Jewish holidays

Sukkot is my holiday.

It’s been obvious since my girlhood, even before I saw “Titanic” a dozen times, that love stories ignite me and are my preferred mode of engagement with the world. I’m partial to eros, of course, but any love will do: filial, platonic, philosophical, spiritual. “You live in a romance novel,” someone I love likes to say. 

It’s why Sukkot suits me. After the parent/child, master/servant, king/subject modality of the High Holy Days, Sukkot offers a more romantic kindling of the God-Israel relationship. 

“Sukkot is all about pleasure,” Rabbi Amy Bernstein, senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades told me when I reached her by phone just before Kol Nidre. What a relief: After all those trying hours in shul celebrating God as the creator of the universe and repenting the myriad ways we’ve failed our covenantal relationship, “Sukkot is celebrating that we’ve come back,” Bernstein said. “It’s all about when we dwelled in the desert with God, when we depended only on God for food and water, [when] we were fed with manna, and [since then] we’ve moved on, and God hasn’t — and it’s this kind of wonderful, gorgeous honeymoon imagery.” 

Even God yearns. It’s quite flattering. And while I’m not terribly keen on the idea of honeymooning in the desert, I do like the general gist: an ancient mythic time when we were wandering through a scorching landscape (facing, as we Angelenos are today, a desiccated Earth) when our valiant hero, God, comes to save us, like a prince in a Jane Austen novel. God first gives us Torah, then escorts us through the desert under “a cloud of glory,” then feeds our bodies and souls with this magical manna substance, which the rabbis liken to sesame seeds that could take the form and flavor of any edible we desired. Imagine if spouses could do that.

That which nourishes, satisfies. And Sukkot, after all, is a pilgrimage festival — the third in our calendar year, after Pesach and Shavuot — which, in the ancient Near East, also marked the last harvest before winter. “So, while you’re harvesting crops, which is what’s going to feed you,” Bernstein said, “you remember a time when God fed you. And [the festival] is a way of reminding the Israelites: ‘Don’t think this is all about you or that you did this.’ Living in these fragile huts [the sukkahs] reminds us that we’re dependent on God for our well-being and our safety, not our permanent structures that are illusions of security.”

Power dynamics can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, though, we humans easily get bored. Especially when we have Facebook messages and Twitter feeds to check, TVs to watch, careers to ascend and human problems to solve. “We don’t have time with each other anymore, in our [technologized] culture,” Bernstein said, let alone time with God. The strains on our fine romance are endless; Sukkot invites us to reconnect. 

“God wants us back,” Bernstein added, “and, for a week, we come back” — entering into the sukkah, which Bernstein described as “the honeymoon suite.”

“It’s the only mitzvah we do, except mikveh, that completely surrounds us.” 

It’s kind of hot. Outside, yes, of course, but also the idea that we’re meant to engage in this tradition of ushpizin — inviting guests into the sukkah. We create this romantic, intimate space beneath a wide, starry sky in which we can draw close to friends or even mysterious strangers. “Have we considered inviting a neighbor?” Bernstein asked with requisite rabbinic prodding. “Someone we don’t normally interact with? Someone we just met and are interested in getting to know?” 

The sukkah is a place for hunger, desire and need for a partnership that sustains us. But even as we saturate our senses with food and drink and music in fresh air, we face our insignificance. Dwarfed by the enormity of God’s creation, we are but transient beings in a temporary shelter. “The sukkah could be knocked over by a strong wind at any moment,” Bernstein warned. We can — and will — lose what we love. Pain is real. Time on earth is brief. 

And yet, despite living in a world on fire — where war and hunger and disease dominate the headlines — Sukkot demands from us z’man simchateinu, a season of joy. 

“How do we hold all of that?” Bernstein wondered, elucidating the tension between the atonement of Yom Kippur and the euphoria of Sukkot. “I think Sukkot is a call into not despairing,” she said. “Yom Kippur teaches that you have to actually get better at what you say you want to be about, and then, once we’re committed to that, we have to celebrate what is. We have to celebrate in the places that we can.” 

Gratitude is Sukkot’s response to a flawed and fractured world. It is evident in our spiritual leap from Yom Kippur, during which we acknowledge our own brokenness, to Sukkot, a celebration of beauty. “We need both,” Bernstein said. “We need Ashamnu, to beat our chests, because we haven’t done enough, we haven’t cared enough. And we need the commandment v’samachta v’chagecha — you shall rejoice on your festival.”

We need the erotic jolt of that tension to rouse ourselves from thanklessness and routine. It’s a spiritual protest against ennui. Besides, aren’t the most exciting relationships usually the complicated ones? The ones that push and propel us, drive us mad in the very best ways, and challenge us to grow? Apparently God wants that kind of passion, too. 

A little etymology promises a lot of suffering, but the magic of the sukkah is that it can hold everything: joy and grief, light and dark, abundance and wanting. It can hold us — imperfect, impermanent, insignificant beings — and God, glorious, sublime, greedy for our love.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this column mistakenly misstated Rabbi Amy Bernstein's first name. It is Amy, not Rachel.