One Holiday, Three Names

Have you ever heard the expression, “Two Jews, three opinions?” When I first heard it, someone even chimed in, “At LEAST three!”

The reality is that life resonates with each of us differently. These different perspectives of the world inform our opinions as well as our learning styles, tastes, and experiences. Luckily for us, the Jewish holiday beginning tonight, most commonly known as Sukkot, goes by three different names throughout the Torah, each offering a different perspective on our observance of this holiday. As Sukkot shows us, having two Jews with three opinions, or one holiday with three names, can bring us together in our diversity. Having multiple perspectives ultimately makes us a stronger, more multifaceted community.

Our most common name, Sukkot, is shorthand for Chag HaSukkot (Leviticus 23:34), which means The Festival of Booths. Our first association with these booths is the Sukkah itself: an outdoor structure made from organic material where we eat, sometimes sleep, and hang out for a week. This name offers a historical connection to the holiday, as these “booths” are a way to commemorate the Israelites’ precarious journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The first Torah portion we read for Sukkot teaches: “You shall live in booths for 7 days… in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I, Adonai your God” (Leviticus 23:42-43). We build these sukkot to remember how our ancestors lived in the desert. They were constantly on the go, and these booths were fragile, impermanent structures that provided them with critical shelter in the brutal desert climate. The commandment to sit in the sukkah is an invitation for us to put ourselves in their shoes, and experience those simultaneous conditions of vulnerability and gratitude. For those of us who connect to history, Chag HaSukkot offers us a historical window into our tradition as we celebrate this Sukkot.

The next name we have for this holiday comes from a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy that declares that we must rejoice in this festival (Deuteronomy 16:14). It’s called Zman Simchateinu — literally meaning “The Time of Our Joy.” Just five days after the heavy soul-searching of Yom Kippur, it is our time to rejoice! For those of us who seek spiritual connections to our holidays, an 18th-century Lithuanian rabbi called the Vilna Gaon wrote that this festival is “Zman Simchateinu” because it marks the first time God’s presence returned to the Israelites after they committed the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. We spent last Sunday night and Monday together on YouTube reciting the liturgy to atone for our sins of the past year, naming specific transgressions, and asking God to hear us. Now, just a few days later, we spiritually mark the moment God’s presence returned to the Israelites with pure joy. As Rabbi Deena taught in the tradition of Rabbi Andy on Yom Kippur morning, “We are commanded as Jews to find joy in life. Says the Psalmist, ‘Serve God with joy and gladness, come before God with song in your hearts.’” Zman Simchateinu is one of these very moments where we can serve God with our joy and gladness.

We find a different name for our holiday in the Book of Exodus. In a set of instructions about observing our appointed pilgrimage festivals, this time of year is designated Chag HaAsif, the Festival of the Harvest (Exodus 23:15-16). While we might not all be actively tending fields today, Chag HaAsif provides a way of connecting to our Earth. Even in Biblical times, Chag HaAsif didn’t mark a specific crop’s harvest. Rather, it marked the moment in the season when people finished the hard work of cutting, reaping, winnowing, and sheafing their grain crops and hoped a rainy winter would yield good production in the spring. We still acknowledge this moment in our prayers — Sukkot is when we stop praying for dew and start praying for rain in the Amidah. We are still dependent on these natural cycles, even if we are further removed from the harvesting process than we once were as a people. For those of us who seek ways to connect with the Earth, Chag HaAsif gives us an opportunity to do just that. With this framework, we can be mindful of the seasonal shifts and admire that we are living on the same planet with the same cycles as those who came before us.

For just one holiday, we have three different names, messages, and points of entry into our sukkah. Chag HaSukkot, The Festival of Booths, reminds us historically of the Israelites living in these makeshift booths, and gives us an opportunity to apply historical lessons to contemporary times. Zman Simchateinu, The Time of Our Joy, presents us with a spiritual high after the hard soul-work of Yom Kippur, and commands us to rejoice together. And Chag HaAsif, The Festival of the Harvest, connects us to the Earth, the Earth’s natural cycles, and the agricultural rhythms that dictated the lives of our ancestors. Whether we connect historically, spiritually, ecologically, or some combination of the three, Sukkot has a name for us.

As we inevitably enter the sukkah with different perspectives from one another, our holiday gives us a symbol to show how, when we bring each of our unique life experiences, we are stronger together. We have a custom to shake the lulav and etrog, four kinds of plants that we recite a blessing over and shake in our sukkah. According to a Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12), each of the four species — date palm, myrtle, willow, and etrog — represent a different kind of Jew. Despite these differences, the custom is to hold all four kinds of plants close together when we shake them. This way, we know that we are all in this together regardless of which opinion we hold, what life experiences we bring, or which name for Sukkot resonates with us most. May we all celebrate Sukkot together as a community — from our homes or from the JCP Sukkah on Duane Street — as we mark our history, rejoice, and transition to fall.

I hope you will join myself and Rabbi Deena tonight on Zoom at 6 pm for a festive Shabbat sing-a-long, filled with the songs and prayers that we are learning in the Hebrew School Project! It will be a wonderful way to begin this Time of Rejoicing.