Sukkot 2020: Between Here and There, Between Before and After

Sukkot gives us the opportunity to experience travel through time and space. How does the Sukkah manage to bring us into experience of reality from a different level?

Betweenness is where revelation happens in our tradition. The Midbar, the wilderness that the Israelites walked through between Egypt and the Promised Land, is the place of revelation for our people. And, according to our Torah portion, is the inspiration for the practice of building sukkot, to commemorate and connect us with the huts the Israelites dwelled in on their journey. 

These huts, made of materials of the earth which are to return to the earth, with a roof that allows those inside to see the sky are also a portal back in time. Their betweenness seeks to remind us of the way in which time and space interplay with each other; they guide us to create a space that takes us back to the time of the Exodus, and to connect with all Jews throughout history by sitting in them, just as they did.

Much is made of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous quotation, “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals,” but shortly thereafter he says something I find even more interesting: “While the festivals celebrate events that happened in time, the date of the month assigned for each festival in the calendar is determined by the life in nature...Sukkot, for example, coincide with the full moon, and the date of all festivals is a day in the month, and the month is a reflection of what goes on periodically in the realm of nature, since the Jewish month begins with the new moon.”

Distinguishing between time and space, according to this, isn’t so easily done. Space is, in fact, ever changing - nature never stops growing, gravity never stops pulling the world towards entropy. But these changes in space are how we measure time. The movement of the earth in relation to planets and stars; the movement of gears in a watch in relation to each other; the decay of atoms. Time is inextricably linked to spatial change. Sukkot seeks to remind us of this by placing us, once again, in nature - in the betweenness of the sukkah.

This can be quite difficult to do here in New York. Our space defines time through the movements of the city more often than nature - traffic, our work calendars, the subway, the opening and closing of businesses. Finding new ways to navigate time and space is particularly relevant now, though, as so many of us continue to live lives deeply altered in which our time blends together into all one time due to our lack of spatial change. We dwell in our normal habitations day in day out. But the sukkah gives us the opportunity for a new space, a space outside, where we are to eat, to drink, and to enjoy, and are reminded of the cycles of nature that make up universal time.

If you are unable to build a sukkah - I certainly can’t! - there is another way to connect to our holiday that transcends space and time that reminds us of the linkages between time and space. A tradition that was lost to the Reform movement long ago for various historical reasons is that of the ushpizin. Throughout the Jewish world, people would sit in their sukkahs each evening and invite in exalted ancestors - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. 

I imagine this to have been a moment of communing with the more recent dead, as well. Cultures throughout the world commune with their dead ancestors through outdoor food rituals, and it makes perfect sense that Sukkot, the holiday of bridging time, would take up that space in the Jewish realm. 

This year, try to set aside this in between time to remember your own spatial portal to the here and now - your ancestors. Your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents: Each played an essential role in your presence within space at all. The Sukkah is a ritual meeting place to bridge that time and space; a ritual meeting place to allow us to dine together, and with those beloved ancestors who are no longer with us in our day-to-day space, but whose time on earth influences us to this day.

How can you engage your own ushpizin, your own exalted guests, without a Sukkah? Spend some time outside, under the stars, eating foods that remind you of them. Take the time to cook a meal for your family or yourself that was passed down to you, and cook some extra for your beloved ancestors. Imagine a sukkah above you and around you as you eat, a canopy of Divine Presence that joins all space and time to this moment. Maybe say the blessing over the sukkah, before you begin - if you need help with that, reach out to me via our website - and have a conversation, either out loud or in your head, with those you wish to welcome.

As we continue on our own trek through the wilderness of a time of great turbulence and change, may you find comfort in this season of Sukkot, in which we build a bridge through time that both acknowledges and overcomes change, and brings us continuity and comfort. May each of us find in this time a way to remind ourselves that we, too, are a part of the wider system of space and time, spiralling onward on our journey.