As a kid, Sukkot wasn’t a holiday we observed at home. Our congregation was where I decorated and visited a sukkah, but it wasn’t a big festival for us. The temple did feel like an extension of my house since my mom worked full time there – but it wasn’t my house.
By contrast, as a married adult, we’ve really embraced Sukkot at home. We’ve built a sukkah in the backyard of each home we’ve lived in. We’ve more than 20 years now of experience in inviting guests for big sukkah dinner parties and having quiet family meals together, too. We enjoy buying a lulav and etrog so we can “shake it in the sukkah!” on our own.
It’s brought us lots of pleasure, which is apt because Sukkot is the only festival that is labeled “z’man simchateinu” or “our time of happiness.” It’s literally our time to party. In Tractate Sukkah, it describes the special “in the place of the drawing of water” celebrations at the Temple on Sukkot as the party to end all parties. In Tractate Sukkah 51a, it says this twice, in both the Mishnah and Gemara, “One who did not see the celebration … never saw celebration in his days.” The Gemara goes further to explain: “One who did not see Jerusalem in its glory, never saw a beautiful city. One who did not see the Temple in its constructed state, never saw a magnificent structure.”
Like any spare, ancient text, we can read this several ways. My first tendency is to recall overhearing university acquaintances laughing. When they saw me, as they laughed, they explained that their fraternity bash was “the party to end all parties” and “they were so blasted” and “it’s a shame you weren’t there!” Then I’d feel some shame. I hadn’t been invited, feeling left out and uncomfortable. Then, as an introvert, I’d privately admit relief! I didn’t have to deal with the noise, drunks, drugs and cigarettes, either.
Yet this is not at all the negative, emotional reading that I think the rabbis intended. The talmudic sages were describing a truly joyous, amazing, mind-blowingly big celebration. It’s hard during the pandemic to wrap my brain around this huge way of celebrating. The Temple in Jerusalem and its way of observing the festivities are also long past, but there are still big sukkahs out there in the world, full of party-goers, no matter the year.
Many of us struggle at times to find the joy in our lives – the world news, natural disaster and ongoing pandemic waves can leave us reeling and wondering when things will get better. When we can gather, many people are flooded with joy at a crowded wedding or a big festive event. However, modern-day Sukkot can bring us joy even without the enormous shindig or party to end all parties at the Temple in Jerusalem.
For me, being outside, at any time of year, helps me find that inner calm, contentment and grounding. I’ve also recently observed moments when I start feeling anxious or sucked into negativity. At those times, I’m consciously trying to step away from the news and the social media feed. I’m giving myself time every day to read a book, cook, study Talmud, knit, and watch my kids and dog play. I need to make space for finding that joy.
This summer, we’ve had a lot of wasps outside in Winnipeg, along with heat, drought and wildfire smoke. It was so bad that our difficult-to-assemble patio table never made it out onto the deck. We used the matching chairs, but gave up on eating outside. I recently tested the waters with my husband, asking if he felt it would be worth it to assemble everything for Sukkot anyway. After all, three out of four family members have gotten wasp stings in the yard so far. It hasn’t been auspicious.
He responded positively, as only a biology professor who studies insects might, noting that wasps weren’t active at night, that cooler temperatures and winds helped, and that we should set things up as usual. He was right. By planning to build a sukkah despite everything, we could optimize our chances at “our time of rejoicing.” Studying Tractate Sukkah this summer made me anticipate the holiday so much that I couldn’t wait for this joyful holiday this time around.
Towards the end of August, the weather started to turn. Our lawns have finally gotten enough rain to turn green again and, as the temperatures drop, the wasps are less active. Winnipeg isn’t a place where many people consider sleeping in the sukkah, or even insist on eating every meal there. It’s often just too cold, but that also kills wasps! Once or twice since we moved here, it’s even snowed during Sukkot.
In Tractate Sukkah 26a, the talmudic rabbi Rava suggests leniency in terms of dwelling in the sukkah. Sick people are exempt from this commandment, but Rava suggests that, if you’re suffering, you too are exempt. His examples include biting flies or a foul-smelling sukkah floor but, when comparing the weather in Israel or Babylonia to Winnipeg, Rava would likely suffer here. Our freezing fall temperatures are sufficiently uncomfortable that many seek only a brief moment in the sukkah rather than a camp out.
I’m still drawn to crisp, clear fall evenings outside in the dark, however. We’ll be wearing our coats and smelling the leaves turning. It’s not the right year to invite lots of guests for parties. We’ve got kids too young to be vaccinated yet. We’re being very cautious.
Still, Sukkot gifts us with excuses to stay up late and enjoy the outdoors each autumn just a little bit longer. The chance to celebrate, this time of our happiness, is upon us. Give yourself that chance to let go of the negativity, worries and anxieties. Have a completely legitimate, Jewishly commanded break outdoors. It’s that time of year to get out into nature and party! Sukkot is here. Enjoy.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.