Gun Cases and Palm Branches: Sukkot as Holiday of Transformation

My teacher, Rabbi Zelig Starr, of blessed memory, used to say that all mitzvot – commandments – and indeed everything in Judaism, was perfectly logical. His affirmation, the result of his education at the yeshiva of Slobodka, Lithuania and at University of Chicago, guided me through my rabbinic training. In most cases, the idea that it was all logical worked just fine for me. The holiday of Sukkot, however, seemed the exception to his rule.

For the uninitiated, Sukkot, as most major Jewish holidays, commemorates both a natural / agricultural event as well as a religious / historical one. In this case, Sukkot marks the end of the summer, a concluding harvest time and the start of the rainy season in Israel. At the same time, it commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Ancient rabbinic tradition discusses the sukkot, booths, in which Jews traditionally dwell (or at least eat in) over the holiday. Either it symbolizes the tents in which the ancient Israelites encamped en route from Egypt to the Land of Israel, or it symbolizes the clouds of glory which, according to the Torah, guided and protected them along the way. So far, so good; everything logical.

When you scratch the surface a bit, the link between the Exodus and the holiday gets blurry. First, the Torah marks the Exodus as occurring during spring. Thus, Passover commemorates the Exodus’ timing. Why another commemoration in autumn? Second, the types of building materials needed to create what we now consider to be a sukkah, would not have been available in the desert. Third, the four species of produce that are carried during prayers are highly suggestive of ancient fertility rites. Fourth, the smashing of willow branches on the last day of Sukkot (Hoshana Rabbah), well, what IS that about? Fifth, on Shemini Atzeret, the holiday that immediately follows Sukkot, a prayer is said that addresses Af B’ri, who, according to most commentators is the “prince” or “angel” of rain, asking that he intervene with God to bless the earth with rain. Totally contradictory to the idea that Jews speak to God without intermediaries.

All told, pretty hard to reconcile those points with a totally modern, rational Judaism. An alternative explanation:

Sukkot is really about nature, not about the Exodus. And most of the observances are just a degree or two of separation from paganism. But here’s the cool thing: Rather than trying to get rid of harvest festivals, fertility rites, and rain dances, Judaism transforms and adopts them. The sukkah of the harvesters becomes the symbol of divine protection in the desert. The four species that symbolize fertility instead become a means of understanding unity of all people or unity of the human spirit and body in serving God. And the rain prayers become a way of recognizing our dependence on God and our unity with the Land of Israel and its needs.

Ultimately, not only Sukkot, but all of Judaism, is about that type of transformation: taking something mundane or natural, imbuing it with kedusha, holiness, thus transforming its meaning into a Jewish message.

This year, I purchased a new lulav holder. To the uninitiated, it looks like a gun case. But to the Jewish eye, attuned to transformation, it is a lulav holder. The gun case ordinarily holds weapons that can destroy and kill. But when transformed into a lulav holder, it becomes part of Sukkot, a holiday in which we recognize our connections to nature and to our history.

May we always view our world as one in which all things have, within them, the ability to become instruments of holiness. And may we always use our power to imbue our world with kedusha.

Wishing you a chag sameach, a very happy Sukkot.

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