By NICHOLAS HAMBURGER, Exclusive to the CCJN
At sundown on Sunday, October 13, the agricultural festival Succot begins, continuing throughout the week until nightfall on Sunday, October 20. Referred to as “the feast of ingathering” in the Book of Exodus, the holiday celebrates the end of the harvest season, when the last of the crops have been collected.
But Succot also contains an important religious dimension, commemorating God’s protection of the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert. Hence, the succah, an impermanent shelter, is at once reminiscent of the structures dwelled in by harvesters, and of the tabernacles constructed by the Jews during their wanderings (Succot, in the Book of Deuteronomy, is called “the feast of tabernacles”).
This year, the Crescent City Jewish News discussed the significance of Succot with four members of the Greater New Orleans rabbinate: Rabbi Katie Bauman of Touro Synagogue, Rabbi David Gerber of Congregation Gates of Prayer, Rabbi Deborah Silver of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation, and Rabbi Josh Pernick of Congregation Beth Israel.
The four conversations have been edited and interwoven to create a unified dialogue of questions and answers — an inquisitive back-and-forth that is both reportorial and characteristic of a mode of questioning rooted in Jewish tradition.
What precedes Succot on the Jewish calendar?
Gerber: Yom Kippur, a very internal observance: we look within ourselves, analyzing our relationship to God.
Why do we celebrate Succot on the heels of Yom Kippur?
Silver: Yom Kippur is a day of introversion, a day of challenging spiritual work. There is a tremendous relief when Yom Kippur ends; in a way, I think of Succot as being the physical expression of that relief.
Why do we move from the interiority of Yom Kippur to the exteriority of Succot?
Gerber: After the inwardness of Yom Kippur, Succot quite literally puts us outside, in the succah, reminding us of our responsibility to the world, to the people around us, to nature and to the earth.
How does the succah direct our attention to the natural and physical world?
Silver: We look up to see the stars. There’s always sound in a succah, for it flaps and it rustles. Building the succah, of course, is a tactile experience. Succot, in part, is a celebration of the senses.
What does this entail for our own physicality?
Bauman: On Succot, we should experience the world viscerally, which means with our bodies.
Why else, on Succot, are we exposed to the weather and elements?
Pernick: One of the themes of Succot is vulnerability. On Succot, we exit the house that feels secure, going out into the world to publicly proclaim our Judaism, our trust in God.
To what extent, then, does the succah represent shelter amidst displacement?
Bauman: The succah is a tangible representation of home, as well as a vehicle to talk about the experience of homelessness, of refugees and of wanderers.
How does the succah prompt us to think about wandering?
Pernick: The succah is an intentionally temporary structure. It is made out of materials that are not designed for the purpose of building. Over the course of the holiday, the roof withers. You feel the wind through the walls.
What is the importance of this porousness?
Silver: The succah is an expression of fragility. All the rest of the year we live in houses that we think will protect us. We tell ourselves a story that we are not fragile. But the fact is that we are fragile, and the border between life and death is thin.
Does this call into question the degree to which the succah protects us?
Gerber: A succah is not an actual home. It cannot protect us from the weather. As Jews, we consider God to be the protector of us and our faith.
What can we make of the dual nature of the holiday?
Silver: The desert is a place of privation, and the succah, a place of abundance. I see that the holiday invites us to hold that polarity.
In addition to the ingathering of the harvest, how else does abundance characterize Succot?
Pernick: Succot is a holiday of hospitality, when you invite in guests: a public celebration amidst a feeling of vulnerability.
What does this hospitality evoke in the space of the succah?
Silver: The physical space of the succah becomes used as a space for joy.
To whom does this hospitality extend?
Silver: The succah is the one place in which we invite in characters who no longer inhabit the physical realm: we invite in the ushpizin, and the ushpizin are ghosts.
How does Yom Kippur anticipate this spectrality?
Bauman: On Yim Kippur, we pretend to be dead for a day, to simulate what it would feel like to be dying. Succot is a return to the tangible, the physical, the corporeal, the sensory.
Can we think of the holiday, then, as a kind of revival?
Bauman: A revival, or a celebration of our survival. Perhaps this is why it is our most joyful day of the year.
How might the succah physically elicit the contemplation of our survival?
Gerber: To begin the ritual in the succah, we must be able to see three stars. This calls to mind the blessing given to Abraham: that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Many generations of Jews have worried that they might be the last generation.
What, finally, does this imply regarding the future?
Gerber: When we step into a succah, and we look up at the stars, we realize that this mentality is perhaps what has kept us alive. This is inspiring when we discuss protection; by observing Succot, we are protecting our people, knowing that the next generation will learn our ways, and our traditions, thus continuing Judaism.