10 Ways to Celebrate Sukkot/Simchat Torah

Our busy month of holidays continues. Sukkot begins Wednesday at sundown, ending with Simchat Torah next Thursday night. Here are some ways to celebrate!

What to do with an etrog after the holiday? Make etrog vodka of course. This is last year's batch, ready to drink this week!
What to do with an etrog after the holiday? Make etrog vodka of course. This is last year’s batch, ready to drink this week!

Dwell in the Sukkah: Building and dwelling in a sukkah is one of the traditional mitzvot (sacred obligations) associated with the holiday; we build a temporary structure to remember both the wanderings in the desert and to connect us closer to nature. It is to be sturdy enough to stand, but not permanent, and the roof is to be made of natural materials and is supposed to let in the elements. “Dwelling” is a relative term: some just eat meals in the sukkah, some sleep out in it. If you don’t have your own sukkah, that’s fine—come on down to the Temple Beth Hatfiloh sukkah with your lunch (or dinner, or breakfast, or snack) and make a picnic. It’s open all holiday!

Wave the Lulav: The other traditional mitzvah associated with Sukkot is the waving of the lulav and etrog, a collection of four different species of plant: willow, myrtle, palm and citron. These four plants are meant to represent all plants found in nature, and when we pick them up we are mindful of our connection to nature and our dependence on it. We ritually wave them in all directions acknowledging that we are surrounded by the divine and the power of nature. The four plants also symbolically represent all of humanity, and so we pray for the unity of all life. There will be a lulav and etrog (and directions as to how to fulfill the act) in the TBH sukkah, so come on down and give it a wave.

Look at the Moon: The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and Sukkot (and Passover in the spring) falls on the full moon. The full moon gives the greatest light, and it is fitting for a harvest holiday to maximize the light. If the sky is clear, look at the moon. Taking a moment to look at the full moon is another way to connect with the cycles of time and the seasons. And this year, a lunar eclipse on Sukkot will create a “blood moon.”

Enjoy the Harvest: Sukkot is the fall harvest festival, so during the holiday take a particular interest in the bounty of fall. Whether it comes from your garden, or the farmers market, or somewhere else, enjoy some fall fruits and vegetables. Make some seasonal foods. In my family Sukkot is when we make our annual visit the pumpkin patch to run in the hay maze and pick out our pumpkins for carving and seed roasting.

Be Happy: Sukkot is called zman simchateynu, the time of our celebration. Why this particular designation? Sukkot follows right on the heels of Yom Kippur, just five days later. On Yom Kippur we fast, we look inward, we atone for our sins—it is both physically and spiritually taxing. It would be hard to just re-enter our regular lives. Aside from being a holiday in its own right, Sukkot thus serves a “buffer” between the High Holidays and the rest of the year. And also reminds us that while life can be difficult, we also need to take the time to simply celebrate, rejoice in and be grateful for what we have, and have fun!

Remember the Homeless: One reason for the holiday of Sukkot is as a reminder of the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom, the wandering in the desert for 40 years as recounted in the Torah.  We are told that the Israelites built temporary structures to provide shelter along the way before settling into their permanent home. One social justice message of Sukkot is to remember those in our own communities who seek shelter, and so we turn our attention to homelessness. As we express gratitude for what we have, we also reach out to those who lack.

Bless the Water: There is an ancient tradition that in the Temple in Jerusalem the priests would offer a prayer for water in a special water drawing and pouring ritual. This was probably connected with the onset of the rainy season. We in the Pacific Northwest are familiar with the onset of the fall rainy season, so this idea of a prayer for water is understandable. In our contemporary liturgy Sukkot is a time to offer a prayer for rain, and so whether you use the traditional words or your own, offer a prayer of thanks for the rain—and perhaps for water in general—recognizing how so dependent we are on this simple substance.

Make a Pilgrimage: Sukkot was one of three “pilgrimage festivals” in ancient days, when the entire community would go to the Temple in Jerusalem to make their offerings and sacrifices. While today we all don’t converge on Jerusalem, Sukkot can be a time to make a pilgrimage. One way is to simply make a point of joining together with the Jewish community—make a pilgrimage to TBH or whatever community you find yourself near. Another is to take a pilgrimage outdoors, and spend some time in a natural setting that is important to you—a walk on the beach, a hike in the woods, a trip to Mount Rainier.

Unroll the Torah: The Jewish liturgical practice is to read the Torah in order over the course of a year, each Shabbat a different section (or parashah). On Simchat Torah we celebrate this practice and the Torah and renew the annual cycle of reading by reading the last part of Deuteronomy and the first part of Genesis. Some (including us at TBH) have the custom of unrolling the entire Torah during the Simchat Torah celebration, so we can take in this beautiful document, and remind us how we are “surrounded” by our traditions and values contained within.

Commit to Learn: At the TBH Simchat Torah celebration we honor our students who are beginning their studies this coming year. But we are always learning. So commit to a new course of study this year, whether formal (I’m doing a professional certificate in nonprofit management) or informal. Online or in-person. Read one book on a subject or check out them all from the library. Or learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. The cycle of learning is continuously renewing itself.

Chag sameach!

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