The festival of sukkot can be interpreted in different ways depending on which branch of Judaism we identify with. Traditionally, sukkot commemorates the years that Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under these difficult conditions. During sukkot we build a sukkah, where it is tradition to eat our meals or even sleep, in warmer climates. The roof is made of leaves which enables us to see the sky – a reminder that God’s heaven is our only source of security. With this comes the meaning that a Jew can be in God’s presence anywhere, and due to lack of physical protection from elements when in the sukkah we are reminded of God’s protection.
Those of us who practice humanist or secular Judaism find human significance in celebrating agriculture, which is seen as being a step toward human mastery of the environment. Farms grew into settlements, which grew into towns and cities. This propelled human civilisation into the secular age that we’re in today. The roof of the sukkah is organic, suggesting human beings’ dependence on and mastery of nature. Similarly, the fullness and beauty of the harvest may bring to light the abundance of beauty in the world. In this sense Sukkot becomes a tribute to human prowess. Agricultural, industrial and technological advances all form the basis of a humanistic celebration of Sukkot.
During Sukkot we have an opportunity to recognise the interconnectedness of humanity. Spending time in a sukkah gives us the experience of living closer to the real world and allows us to reflect on how fortunate we are to be protected from the elements, a privilege that many within our society don’t have. Sukkot helps to keep us grounded and appreciative of what we take for granted – three meals a day, a solid structure to live in, and somewhere warm to sleep each night. Chief Rabbi Jonathon Sacks summarises the message of Sukkot as ‘a tutorial in how to live with insecurity and still celebrate life’. Regardless of the type of Judaism we associate with, as members of a complex society it’s important that we all take the time during this week to celebrate the life we live, whilst reflecting on the lack of security others living amongst us face on a daily basis.
– Sara Bickler