Sukot completes two cycles in our festival calendar, making it rich in meaning and joy. On one hand, it completes the cycle of the three pilgrimage festivals (the three times a year our ancestors would make pilgrimage from wherever they were in the land to celebrate at the Temple in Jerusalem), begun, with Pesach and then followed by Shavuot and Sukot. On the other, it completes the series of Tishrei festivals, begun with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The three pilgrimage festivals each have an agricultural, historical and religious element. Pesach commemorates the beginning of the spring harvest, the exodus from Egypt and the concept of freedom and redemption. Shavuot commemorates the end of the spring harvest, the giving of Torah in Sinai, and the concept of revelation. Sukkot commemorates the end of the autumn harvest, the wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years and the concept of creation.
In its religious component, Sukot marks the perfect culmination to the celebrations of Tishrei. Tishrei corresponds to Libra in the Zodiac, whose symbol is that of the Scales. It is in this month that we think of our lives as being in the balance between life and death, good and bad, blessing and curse. The major traditions of Sukot — building and dwelling in the Sukah and taking the four species (lulav, etrog, willow and myrtle), amplify this sense of life in the balance. The main symbol of the Sukkah allows in a delicate balance of light and shade and is a fragile structure – providing us a sense of shelter, but not permanence. By eating and dwelling in our Sukkah these seven days, we sense the fragility and preciousness of our own lives, reminding ourselves of our humble place in creation. Similarly, the four species are beautiful at the beginning of the seven days, but over the week of Sukkot begin to wilt and die. We are reminded throughout the days of the Sukot of the beauty of creation, and also the impermanence of all things in the physical realm.
Further, the process of introspection and repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah culminates with Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot. We acknowledge this tradition by reciting Psalm 27 through the month of Elul as a prelude to Rosh Hashanah, concluding with the recitation of the psalm on Hoshanah Rabbah. Similarly, on this last day of Sukkot, we recite our final petitions to have a year of blessing and goodness through a series of salvation prayers (hoshanot in Hebrew). While Sukkot is a great celebration that balances the intense 10 days of introspection from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, it also continues to remind us of our lives “in the balance.”
There are many beautiful traditions associated with Sukot – from the taking of the four species, dwelling in the Sukkot, inviting in guests, both real and remembered, and making processions each day around the bimah in the synagogue. The celebration of Sukot, both in its placement in the calendar and in its traditions, is the highlight of the celebrations of Judaism. In humility we give thanks for what we have and who we are. No wonder that the tradition simply knows it as “He-Chag”, The Festival.