The Jewish festival of Sukkot, or The Feast of Tabernacles, begins in 2018 on Sunday 23 September (at sundown), and continues for seven days. (See Fragile earth – experiencing God in the desert.)
Sukkot (other spellings include ‘Succot’ and ‘Sukkoth’) commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God took special care of them under impossible conditions. Instructions for the commemoration are laid down in the Book of Leviticus 23: 39-43.
The word sukkot means ‘huts’ (or ‘booths’), and building a hut is the most obvious way in which Jews celebrate the festival. Every Jewish family will build an open air structure in which to live during the holiday – though exactly how much varies depending on the climate of the country or region! The essential thing about the hut is that it should have a roof of branches and leaves, through which those inside can see the sky, and that it should be a temporary and flimsy thing.
Acknowledging the fragility of human existence is one idea at the heart of Sukkot. In his Thought for the Day for Radio 4’s Today programme on 28 September 2012, the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks described Sukkot as “a festival about the fragility of nature as a habitat hospitable to humankind”. He said that Sukkot helps restore “our sense of humility about our place within nature and the universe. It reminds us that we are dependent on things beyond our control.” A lesson for all peoples, surely, not just for a Jewish celebration.
Alongside this theme of our human fragility (and the sense of humility that this brings) is the notion that we are in the presence of God anywhere – in a well-insulated house, where we take protection for granted, but also in an open space, with flimsy protection and at the mercy of the elements. Is this too thoughtless a message to preach when we see on our news screens refugees flooded out of their homes, shanty towns sprung up by open sewers, or vast, tented camps sheltering the victims of famine?
And yet Christians, as well as Jews, want to say that, when we peer through the gaps in the roof of a Sukkot and see the sky, we are also looking beyond ourselves to find God embracing us and all things in all our situations.
Rachel Parkinson offers an honest acknowledgement that, “cushioned by securities / we often lose our Way”:
So lead us into wilderness
and gently strip us bare;
That, trusting in your grace alone,
we find your blessings there.
(“Lord, save us from the desert” (website only))
For other hymns that reflect the themes of Sukkot, read Fragile earth – experiencing God in the desert.
[Some of the information about Sukkot above has been adapted from a longer introduction to the meaning and traditions of the festival on the BBC website.]