Fear and trembling — those have been our primary religious emotions during the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe when, facing divine judgment, we felt vulnerable, insecure, and anxious about what the coming year has in store for us.
After all, in our prayers, we actually asked of the Almighty that he “cast His fear over all of His handiwork, and His awe over all of His creatures.”
But Judaism does not want us to remain stuck in these overwhelming emotions of anxiety and uncertainty. And so our Torah has provided us with the festival of Sukkot, a time not for fear and trembling, contemplation and soul-searching, but for serenity and joy. We emerge from what mystics call the “dark night of the soul” into the bright light of happiness.
The central symbol of Sukkot is the sukkah. What is the meaning of this simple symbol? And how does it inspire this spiritual attitude of trust?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said it best:
The building of the sukkah teaches you trust in G-d. You know that whether men live in huts or in palaces, it is only as pilgrims that they dwell. You know that in this pilgrimage G-d is our protection. The sukkah is a transitory hut that one day will leave us or we will leave it. The walls may fall, the leafy covering may wither in this storm, but the sheltering love of G-d is everywhere. You dwell in the most fleeting and transitory dwelling as calmly and securely as if it were your house forever.”
And so we redirect our orientation to G-d, no longer the harsh judge, nor even the compassionate judge. He is now our shelter and protector, the permanent “Rock of Israel” in the transitory experience we call life.
We effect this shift by using the symbols the holiday provides us, chief among them the sukkah.
How does the sukkah work its wonders? The secret is to enter it respectfully and reflectively, spend as much time as possible in its shade, and invite into it two types of guests: friends and family, with special hospitality for those who may never have enjoyed a sukkah experience, and we also symbolically summon the ushpizin, the “ghost guests,” our ancestors going back to Abraham and Sarah.
We immerse ourselves in the sukkah, encountering the cherished memories of those who sat in other sukkot before us, ancestors recent and long gone, and our usual companions who all participated as we do in that protracted pilgrimage known as Jewish history.
A version of this column was published in 2013.