Editor’s Note: Sukkot is known in Jewish tradition as a time of rejoicing, but its customs and prayers are often mysterious to many of us today. The new Koren Sukkot Mahzor, with powerful commentary and explanatory notes by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, unveils much of the intrigue behind the concepts, minhagim, tefillot, and Torah readings relevant to the weeklong festival. The following is an exclusive excerpt from Rabbi Sacks’s beautiful introduction.
Of all the festivals, Sukkot is surely the one that speaks most powerfully to our time. King Solomon’s Kohelet, which we read on Sukkot, could almost have been written in the twenty first century. Here is the ultimate success, the man who has it all, and yet who, surveying the totality of his life, can only say, in effect, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”
Kohelet’s failure to find meaning is directly related to an obsession with the “I” and the “Me”: “I built for myself. I gathered for myself. I acquired for myself.” The more he pursues his desires, the emptier his life becomes. There is no more powerful critique of the consumer society, whose idol is the self, whose icon is the “selfie” and whose moral code is “Whatever works for you.”
This is the society that achieved unprecedented affluence, giving people more choices than they have ever known, and yet at same time saw an unprecedented rise in alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, stress related syndromes, depression, attempted suicide, and actual suicide.
Of all things people have chosen to worship, the self is the least fulfilling. A culture of narcissism quickly gives way to loneliness and despair.
Kohelet was also, of course, a cosmopolitan: a man at home everywhere and therefore nowhere. This is the man who had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines but in the end could only say, “More bitter than death is the woman.” It should be clear to anyone who reads this in the context of the life of Solomon that Kohelet is not really talking about women but about himself.
In the end Kohelet finds meaning in simple things. Sweet is the sleep of a laboring man. Enjoy life with the woman you love. Eat, drink, and enjoy the sun. That ultimately is the meaning of Sukkot as a whole. It is a festival of simple things. It is, Jewishly, the time we come closer to nature than any other, sitting in a hut with only leaves for a roof, and taking in our hands the unprocessed fruits and foliage of the palm branch, the citron, twigs of myrtle, and leaves of willow. It is a time when we briefly liberate ourselves from the sophisticated pleasures of the city and the processed artifacts of a technological age, and recapture some of the innocence we had when we were young, when the world still had the radiance of wonder.
The power of Sukkot is that it takes us back to the most elemental roots of our being. You don’t need to live in a palace to be surrounded by clouds of glory. You don’t need to be rich to buy yourself the same leaves and fruit that a billionaire uses in worshipping God. Living in the sukkah and inviting guests to your meal, you discover – such is the premise of Ushpizin, the mystical guests – that the people who have come to visit you are none other than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their wives.
Sukkot is the time we ask the most profound question of what makes a life worth living. Having prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be written in the Book of Life, Kohelet forces us to remember how brief life actually is, and how vulnerable. “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” What matters is not how long we live, but how intensely we feel that life is a gift we repay by giving to others. Joy, the overwhelming theme of the festival, is what we feel when we know it is a privilege simply to be alive, inhaling the intoxicating beauty of this moment amid the profusion of nature, the teeming diversity of life, and the sense of communion with those many others with whom we share a history and a hope.
Most majestically of all, Sukkot is the festival of insecurity. It is the candid acknowledgment that there is no life without risk, yet we can face the future without fear when we know we are not alone. God is with us, in the rain that brings blessings to the earth, in the love that brought the universe and us into being, and in the resilience of spirit that allowed a small and vulnerable people to outlive the greatest empires the world has ever known.
The sukkah became in the course of time a symbol, not only of forty years in the wilderness, but of centuries of exile and dispersion. Too often, home turned out to be no more than a temporary dwelling, a sukkah.
Yet with its genius for the unexpected and its ability to rescue hope from tragedy, Judaism declared this festival of insecurity to be zeman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. For the sukkah, that quintessential symbol of vulnerability, turns out to be the embodiment of faith, the faith of a people who forty centuries ago set out on a risk-laden journey across a wilderness of space and time, with no more protection that the sheltering presence of the Shechinah.
Toward the end of his great History of the Jews, Paul Johnson wrote:
The Jews were not just innovators. They were also exemplars and epitomizers of the human condition. They seemed to present all the inescapable dilemmas of man in a heightened and clarified form…. The Jews were the emblem of homeless and vulnerable humanity. But is not the whole earth no more than a temporary transit camp?
Those words go to the heart of Sukkot. To know that life is full of risk and yet to affirm it, to sense the full insecurity of the human situation and yet to rejoice: this, for me, is the essence of faith. Judaism is no comforting illusion that all is well in this dark world. It is instead the courage to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty, and to rejoice even in the transitory shelter of the tabernacle, the Jewish symbol of home.