Today we celebrate the 3rd day of Sukkot or the Feast of Booths. My first experience with a Sukkah and Sukkot was when I was around 8 years old and still attending Reform Hebrew School. I remember being herded with my classmates to see the Sukkah that was built outside. It was very similar to the one we build here at Shema, made from wood and with an open side. When we entered the Sukkah I remember being surprised by how it was decorated and that there was a dinner table inside. I learned that we were to eat meals and generally spend time in this place. We were taught how the roof of the Sukkah needed to be made from loose leafy materials like palm leaves, and that you were supposed to be able to see the stars when looking up. A sukkah roof was also to be open enough for rain to come in. I also remember how fragile the Sukkah was and how many times we were told to be careful inside.
While my Hebrew school was very good at explaining how to do Jewish traditions, we did not spend much in Scripture. It was only years later I would read the command for building the Sukkah in Leviticus 23:42-43: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” The command to build a Sukkah, a temporary place to live, is directly tied to the Exodus from Egypt and our 40 years wandering in the desert.
In the harsh wilderness, our people wandered in they did not have time to build permanent houses. Instead, we lived in a temporary way, which could easily be taken down and moved as the Lord instructed us where to go. We were completely dependent on God to provide for our needs in the wilderness, including weather that would not destroy these homes.
So I went into the Sukkah and then after going through everything with the Rabbi I left it, and my class went back to our classroom and continued with our lessons. For many years that was the only connection I had with Sukkot. I would spend a few minutes in a Sukkah, hear the prayers being done, and then go on with my day. I think my experience with Sukkot was common compared to most Jewish people. While we will turn out in droves for services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, things seem to change for Sukkot.
In fact during our modern day and age we are so busy with matters of consequence that it has reached the point we have created Drive-Thru Sukkahs. You pull up to the Sukkah in your car, drive inside, and during some of the hours a volunteer will help you say the blessings for Sukkot and maybe provide a snack. Most congregations and groups with a drive-thru Sukkah understand this is non-traditional and a bit gimmicky but feel it serves a legitimate need, connecting people with God and Jewish tradition in a modern context.
But is this how we are to see Sukkot? As a blip on the radar after Yom Kippur? As a few minutes spent in a Sukkah seeing the waving of the Lulav and Etrog? Or is there perhaps something more?
I believe there is a deeper meaning to Sukkot that has been lost in the culture we live in and that in Sukkot we can find the secret to true joy and meaning in our lives.
We live in a very spiritually dead world. A world that is obsessed with status and materialism. A world that judges us based on numbers, the number in our bank accounts, the numbers of “friends” on Facebook, the number of people who like, love, retweet, etc., the things we post online. It is a world of deep self-obsession, spend 5 minutes on Instagram and tell me otherwise. There is a demand that everyone, the Lord included, treat us exactly the way we want to be treated and anyone who does not is in the wrong and should be ignored and hated.
All these things our culture puts in front of us come with the promise of lasting joy and happiness but it is all sadly a destructive lie. There is no lasting joy to be found on Facebook or Instagram, in fact these things seem to breed anger, resentment, and jealousy.The fact the things of this world do not give us real joy is nothing new, in the 1800’s Henry David Thoreau commented about the America he lived in:
“Men have become the tools of their tools. Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
Over a hundred years later and that quote is still as true today. We work hard for things that our society promises will make us whole, or better, or great, and then when it doesn’t happen we just move onto the next thing. Between our cellphones, computers, and TV’s there are literally uncountable things to distract ourselves with, to become dead to the world and people around us.
Even for believers many of us can get caught up in the work of life and begin to look at our spiritual life as nothing but work as well. It is scheduled like everything else in our day, and can slowly have no joy. Time is set aside for maybe prayer and some reading if it is possible, but other priorities pull at our time. However, Sukkot is an opportunity to break free of these cycles and rediscover the joy of the Lord.
So as we begin the New Year in earnest, having come through Yom Kippur, hopefully trying to live better than we did in the previous year, we encounter the holiday of Sukkot. Unlike Yom Kippur where the Lord commanded us to humble and afflict ourselves, the mood and command for Sukkot is quite different. Consider the Lord’s words found in Deuteronomy 16:13-15:
“Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.”
The Lord desired for everyone to celebrate Sukkot with great joy. Not just the Priests or the rich but for everyone in the nation of Israel to join in this celebration, including those who were foreign. It is this command to be joyful, to experience God with joy that I think is missing from Sukkot today for many.
Too often when we think about our faith and our relationship with Adonai it is one of just atonement and somberness. There is a dangerous type of thinking that equates feeling bad with being pious. That the more bad we feel, the more we beat ourselves up, the more righteous we are. We are commanded to mourn our sin, to atone and repent but our relationship with God is more than just sorrow and suffering. One of the things Satan does in our lives is to accuse us. To tell us we are not good enough or that perhaps our sins have not been forgiven through Messiah Yeshua. That God cannot forgive the sins we have confessed to Him. But these things are lies for the person who has made a genuine turning back to Adonai through Yeshua the Messiah. We need to understand then that after repentance and forgiveness is joy, after Yom Kippur is Sukkot.
It is no coincidence that this time of deep joy comes after a time of deep repentance. There is a model presented for us in the order of the holidays, once we have atoned for our sin and have had been washed clean we can have true joy not dependent on our circumstances.
We find this same command for joy echoed even more strongly in the New Testament. As Rabbi Paul wrote in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” It is not a call to rejoice sometimes, or to rejoice when everything is just going well, but to have joy always, which can only be done with Adonai.
We also see Godly joy for us in the first Sukkot celebrated after the exile, in Nehemiah 8. In that chapter the law of God is read by the people for the first time in years by the Priests. After the reading of the Law our people began to mourn and cry because of our sin. Nehemiah and others began to calm our people though and told us to not cry or mourn. Instead, we were to celebrate this day of Sukkot to the Lord and go out and send gifts of food to one another.
So Nehemiah told us not to grieve and gives us an incredibly profound statement in verse 10, “…the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Our strength in this life is found in the joy of God. That Godly joy, joy centered around the goodness of God, is a source of spiritual strength. So along with our disciplines of prayer, fasting, and reading God’s Word there is an important place for the spiritual discipline of Joy.
For many this may seem to be a radical idea, that having Joy is spiritual. But the type of joy we experience during Sukkot, the type of joy that was Nehemiah’s strength is a joy centered on God’s goodness. The way God blesses us each day, and has blessed us through our real personal relationship to Him through Messiah Yeshua.
Sukkot and the Sukkah then is an invitation by the Lord to break away from our routines and busy lives, to encounter Him in a very deep and real way like we did in the Wilderness. It is also an invitation to experience real joy through His creation and seeking Him out.
So by leaving our homes and entering the Sukkah we are intentionally breaking away from the normal patterns of our lives, of life in this fallen world, to seek out God in His creation. It is quite literally shifting our perspective and having the opportunity to get close to God in a different way.
But the Sukkah is just a tool that allows us to do so. We do not have to wait to Sukkot and have a Sukkah in our backyards to do this. Every day we have the opportunity to seek out the Lord in His creation or just in a way that is different than normal. This could be through taking a walk or putting our phones in another room and spending some time in solitude and prayer. It is important to disconnect at times from our routines and the busyness of our lives to seek the peace and joy of the Lord.
Even in the middle of deep suffering it is possible to experience the joy of the Lord, but joy is something we need to practice like any other discipline and not just assume we can get it right on our own. It is important that we try to set aside some time whether an entire day or just some hours to experience joy and celebration. This can be alone or even with other people. In fact this is a discipline where others can help us grow. We can seek out those around us who seem to just have authentic spiritual joy and ask them to help us as well.
So Sukkot challenges us to ask what is the source of our joy and happiness? Is it rooted in the Lord or found in the things of this world? Sukkot also challenges us to examine our lives to see if our relationship with the Lord is filled with joy and vibrant or has it turned dull and routine. If it has we have the opportunity to seek the Lord and ask Him to restore the joy of our First Love. Finally, Sukkot reminds us that joy should be as much of our life as prayer or reading God’s Word. If we do not have any joy in our lives, maybe because of circumstances, we need to ask the Lord to give us strength through His joy. I am reminded of King David’s prayer in Psalm 51, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” It is good and proper to ask the Lord to give us joy, to restore us and sustain us.
As we enjoy the changing of the seasons and the time of Sukkot may the Lord enable each one of us to experience a joy and happiness not dependent on our circumstances that can only be found in Him. May today be the day we renew our joy in the Lord if we have lost it.
As Psalm 118 declares,” This (not tomorrow, not yesterday, today, right now) is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.