The Time of Our Rejoicing

(Photograph: "Sense of Spring" by Albena Markova)

Rabbis tend to agree that the huge numbers of congregants who throng in synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur but do not stay around for the holiday of Sukkot are missing the best part of this season.

Following the "Day of Judgment," as the Jewish New Year is styled liturgically, and the "Day of Atonement," this Festival of Booths is the "Time of our Rejoicing."

What makes it so? After all, this harvest holiday comes on the edge of winter, even in the land of Israel. It may reasonably seem quite distant from the "song time" of the springtime Canticles, with all the giddy, ungovernable effervescence of that part of the year. And Sukkot - especially with its forebodingly apocalyptic scriptural selections, its wars of Gog and Magog, its prophecies of millennial cataclysm - has a not-so-hidden shadowy aspect.

Sukkot, however, is also, and perhaps ultimately, a return to the self, to our truest nature - as a people, and, if we attune to the core experience of this festival, as individual human beings.

Consider: our Torah is not the story of arrival in the Promised Land. In fact, the final celebration in this season, the Eighth Day holiday-unto-itself that caps Sukkot and concludes our sequence of autumn sacred days, rolls us away from the very verge of crossing over into the Land, right back to Genesis, to start all over again. That may not at first sound like a cause for rejoicing. But consider: our Torah is the journey; and so long as we are alive, we get to embark upon the journey anew, again and again.

So Sukkot - named for the temporary pavilions, the transitory shelters in which we sojourn in this holiday ("for in sukkot I caused the children of Israel to dwell when I took them forth out of Egypt") - is a return to the essence of Torah, to experiential awareness of being on the way.

Strongholds and permanent dwelling-places, for ourselves and for the Divine, have their part in our sacred imagination and in the story of our people. But they are fraught with peril - principally the peril of complacency, of self-satisfaction, the peril of ceasing to move, of forgetting that being truly alive is about remaining on a questing path.

Being 'safe as houses,' as the English expression goes, has its allure and its importance; but vulnerability and transitoriness are much more in the actual nature of human existence. And if that does not sound like much to be joyous about, consider that growth and accrual of experience - and of wisdom, one hopes - are matters of being on the move, of daring to expose oneself to the risks of the road.

Certainly a house, a home, is something to cherish. But our High Holyday experience has the effect of shaking us out from amid the walls where we may have become stuck, out into the open. And out in the open - if we embrace the Torah of being ever on the journey - we may find ourselves most truly at home, and find our truest selves.

An oft-quoted Talmudic argument suggests that the storied shelters of our original journey out of Egypt may have been "clouds of glory." Be that as it may, the righteous in the world to come, in the visions of our Sages, are pictured under canopies, in pavilions. We are in essence a people of encampment, in our true heart we are always a holy caravan.

The harvest in the orchards and the fields may be done for the year and the time for huddling indoors may be at hand - but Sukkot, for all its autumn imagery, is all about the preconditions of an eventual blossoming.

Our New Year and our Day of Atonement, if done right, have liberated us from palaces of habit, from fortresses of stasis - and so this is the holiday of the joy that comes from being in motion.

Sukkot, this autumn festival, is actually an incipience, however far off springtime's flowering may be. It is not out of season, then, that the following - by Canadian poet Lorna Crozier - speaks to my heart very truly in this Time of Our Rejoicing:


Where does that singing start, you know,
that thin sound - almost pure light?
Not the birds at false dawn or their song
when morning comes, feathered throats
warm with meaning. A different kind of music.

Listen, it is somewhere near you.
In the heart, emptied of fear,
stubbornly in love
with itself at last, the old
desires a ruined chorus,
a radiant, bloody choir.

Where does the singing start?
Here, where you are, there's room
between your heartbeats,
as if everything you have ever been
begins, inside, to sing.