What We Can Learn from the Rich Symbolism of Sukkot

There are more spiritually resonant symbols associated with the Festival of Sukkot than with any other major Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur, the only visual marker is the special clothing many wear as symbols of teshuvah. On Passover, the redemptive symbol of matzah is joined by the visual and performative symbolism of the Seder. Shavuot has almost no visible reminders of the holiday other than the special liturgy. But Sukkot offers the 4 species (lulav, etrog, willows, and myrtle), each with their own multi-layered significance, as well as the sukkah itself, a symbolically powerful stage that encourages those celebrating the holiday to open their hearts, their minds and their homes to a transformative experience of the divine. During the 7 days of Sukkot, observant Jews live – or at least eat their meals – surrounded by the walls of a fragile hut with a roof covered in branches sparse enough to allow glimpses of the heavens and an expanded field of vision.

Creative Common/Rahel Jaskow

Creative Common/Rahel Jaskow

As the weather begins to cool, and as – at least in Israel – the rainy season draws near, Jews go outside to a structure far from the comfort and reassurance of the bricks, mortar, steel, and concrete that normally shelter them, literally and figuratively, from directly engaging with the outside world. During the rest of the year, even when Jews leave their homes to join together as a community, they usually gather in synagogues for prayer and study, in schools for learning and training, and in Jewish community centers for fun, leisure and public programs. In all of these communal institutions, as in our own homes, solid walls provide structure and safety, boundaries and reassurance. Those inside are protected from the outside elements and from those not like themselves, able to feel safe with their own kind. Seeking community and shelter within, these communal structures keep out those who, the people inside feel, may pose a danger – those with whom they feel less comfortable.

Yet the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, suggests that it is not those structures built on strong foundations, however grand and however beautiful, that call to the Divine. Rather, it is the frail and unstable building, the sukkah, that generates such energy that the divine presence manifests itself in these small booths along with the souls of Judaism’s righteous ancestors. During Sukkot, the Zohar tells us, the souls of 7 historic leaders of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David) leave the heavens to visit with the Jewish people (ZoharEmor 103A). Called the ushpizin, the Aramaic word for “guests,” observant Jews welcome a different guest each day as they begin their Sukkot meal.

Today, many also welcome female guests from the Jewish tradition: Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther. While having its roots in some classic sources, this is a sign for many women of a greater inclusivity in Jewish ritual as the tradition continues to evolve. Women who were once outsiders are now invited in, and women who were once forgotten or cast aside are remembered.

Some years back when a sukkah put up by the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch outreach organization in Venice was filled to overflowing, the rabbi asked of the women who were present to sit at a series of tables that were extended just outside the sukkah. They were not, he pointed out, bound by the same halachic obligation as the men to eat under the roof of the sukkah – a mitzvah delineated in the Torah. Some out of duty and some so as not to cause trouble, followed the request. A male friend of mine, Daron, felt the insult in the request, so he too moved to the area where the women were now seated. In the seat next to him he met the woman who would soon become his wife. Break down the traditional barriers and new possibilities emerge.

The sukkah is a sign to open one’s hearts at this season. Just as its roof opens to the sky, so too may those celebrating Sukkot be open to the stranger, the other, and the guest who they do not see everyday in their synagogues, in their JCCs, and in their homes. On the High Holidays, many synagogues may require tickets to enter the building. Most JCCs require membership or charge entry for events and programs. But all are welcome into the sukkah.

The sukkah invites the Jewish community to effect change in the way it treats all people. This may include those to whom Jewish institutions may be blind – singles, gays, lesbians, transgender people, the unengaged, the elderly, newcomers, and the marginalized (as well as a whole host of other community members with special needs). These “outsiders” may already be in synagogues, quiet and in the back, but on Sukkot, Jews are commanded to welcome them as guests. Those on the outside are invited inside and welcomed to join the community in sisterhood and fellowship.

There are other times when Jews may feel as though they welcome others into their institutions. On Passover, tradition demands that all who are hungry be invited to a Passover table. But, while observing the seder ritual, most stay in the comfort of their homes. The door may be opened to welcome the presence of Elijah, but only for a brief moment. On Sukkot, living quarters themselves become open, ready to receive guests, both invited and unexpected. The sukkah reminds Jews of their collective and individual vulnerability — no walls, no guards, and also no high holiday tickets to collect, nothing regulating the gates of entry and access. As one may see out to the stars, so too can anyone see in.

Sukkot reminds us that our structures and institutions need to be opened up. Only when those in the community open their homes, even temporarily, to those outside – only then can they draw near to God and receive the sacred gift of the presence of the ushpizin. And only when welcoming the outsider into our lives can we return to the everyday of permanent structures, concrete, brick and walls, with a new love and respect for all humanity.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12) teaches that each of the 4 species represents a different type of Jew.

The lulav has taste but no smell, symbolizing those who know the traditions of Judaism but do not practice them. The myrtle (hadass) has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who do good deeds but do not have knowledge of Judaism. The willow (aravah) has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who never study Torah and never carry out good deeds. The etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who know the traditions of Judaism and apply them in their lives.

The mitzvah of Sukkot is only fulfilled when all 4 are held together. Then, and only then, are all Jews one people. Each compensates for the other. The community can know that it is strong. It is one.

Another Midrashic interpretation (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) sees each of the 4 species as representing a different part of the body. The lulav is the spine. The etrog represents the heart. The willow, the lips, and the myrtle, the eyes. Only when they work in unison, can a body function. Metaphorically, then, only when people speak out, feel for, and see those they may often overlook, do they appreciate the ability of the back (the spine and the center of a person) to stand strong.

A more modern Midrashic approach may see sexual symbolism in the 4 species as well. It takes little imagination to see why. The lulav clearly seems phallic, particularly with its basket attached below, reminiscent of the scrotum. The etrog is clearly breast like, with its pronounced “nipple.” When our community is fragmented we are weak. But when men and women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, singles and married, young and old, all stand together – we can, as is so of the lulav and etrog, move in many directions. As Jews sit in the sukkah, whether it is the sukkah at their congregation with fellow congregants, at the JCC with neighbors, or at home or with friends and relatives, may all feel renewed by God’s presence, sheltering and blessing us and our newly invited guests.

Posted on September 14, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy