by Sam Glaser
The month of October unleashes a tension of sorts in our predominantly Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Nearly every house sports a gaily decorated sukkah, many placed on front lawns for all to see. As one walks a bit farther from Pico Blvd, macabre Halloween decorations take over the facades of the local homes. Jewish kids must grapple with a continuum of responses to trick-or-treating: for the far right, it’s as if the holiday doesn’t exist. Modern Orthodox might allow their kids to make the rounds on their street in search of kosher candy and haunted houses but downplay any outward signs of participation. Sadly, Jews of other denominations are more likely to be carrying a light saber than a lulav.
I grew up loving Halloween and scarcely knew Sukkot existed. For us Brentwood kids, Halloween had no religious connotation whatsoever. Instead it was a night of after-hours fun when we normally would be stuck indoors doing homework. We relished in the sense of mischief and mystery as we wandered the darkened streets, stopping at any given household when we needed another sugar fix. As we grew older, All Hallows Eve became an excuse to party. At the University of Colorado, Boulder or UC Santa Barbara, my brothers and I made certain that Halloween was an epic night to remember. Since I garnered only positive associations with this American pastime, I allowed my kids to wander the neighborhood in search of candy. We would then buy their treasure trove of sweets back from them so they wouldn’t destroy their teeth. Better $10 for them than $1000 for the dentist. Friends knew that I would happily accept a gift of a Corona when I arrived with my brood on erev Halloween. My wife generally stayed home to supply the trick-or-treaters with chocolate and once in a while we’d hit an adult after hours party in our Purim costumes. Sukkot occupies such a primal place in our family life that I didn’t worry about confusing priorities.
Some may argue that the two holidays occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Whereas Halloween features themes of death and evil, Sukkot celebrates life, the bounty of the harvest, the joy of God’s protective love. I have found, however, that there are many similarities between our autumnal celebration and deathly commemorations in other cultures. According to Rabbi Dr. Raphael Zarum, with whom I had the pleasure to learn on many occasions in the UK, the Chumash refers to this holiday as the Festival of Booths and Chag Ha’asif, the festival of the ingathering. The annual harvest tribute implies that the last crops have been removed from the earth as it descends into the death-state of winter. We see this word asif-ingathering several other times in the text, usually pertaining to the passing of our biblical heroes as they are “gathered to their people.” Therefore if we substitute death for ingathering, Chag Ha’asif becomes the Festival of Death. Whoa! Furthermore, each night of Sukkot we welcome these blessed dead ancestors as Ushpizin or honored guests into our thatched hut. Spooky, right?
Versions of our Sukkot harvest/mortality celebration are echoed in festivals around the world. Samhain is of Gaelic origins and like Jewish holidays, it begins in the evening. This progenitor of Halloween results from the ancient Irish belief that this period is one when the boundary between this world and the next is most easily crossed. Think of corridors in between states of reality in The Matrix, or as we learn in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “This world is like a corridor before the world to come.” Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a multiday holiday around Halloween that allows folks to pray and remember family and friends and bless their spiritual journey. Our Sukkot celebration ends with Sh’mini Atzeret during which we offer a Yahrzeit service to allow the congregation to do pretty much the same thing. Pitru Paksha is a two-week holiday for Hindus that falls during the autumnal equinox. Much like our Kaddish, the ritual is regarded as compulsory to ensure that the soul of the ancestor goes to heaven.
Perhaps the central connection with mortality on Sukkot is the nature of the schach that forms the sukkah’s roof. It cannot be made from living vegetation, in other words, a leafy tree branch hovering over your sukkah that is still anchored to its roots renders it posul (invalid for use). Schach must be adama, vegetation cut off from the ground, dead and disconnected. One lesson we learn from this use of refuse to complete our sukkah: just like true teshuva can turn our mistakes into mitzvot, we take a waste product, put it on top of the walls of our sukkah and fulfill a mitzvah! Adam, or mankind, comes from the same root as the vegetation, adama. Both terms indicate origins from the earth. Just like the schach must be dead, so too will we die, hopefully returning to the earth after one hundred-twenty wonderful years. The vision of our sukkah’s schach renders us humble with a potent reminder of our fragility. Halacha states that the schach cannot be layered so heavily that it occludes the view of the stars above. In other words, while we have an awareness of our mortality, we can keep our eyes on the stars, on our eternity, or as Rabbi Leibele Eiger says, the aforementioned gift of living with permanent impermanence.
Further morbid connections with this holiday of joy: ironically, the “megilah” of this season is Kohelet (Ecclesiastes,) the morose tome authored by King Solomon in his old age. This book suggests cheery concepts like: it is “better to attend a house of mourning rather than one of feasting,” “a time to be born, a time to die” and “the day of death is better than the day of birth.” Kohelet is related to the word k’hilah, or congregation, or a “gathering.” Oy…there’s that ingathering again! For the Haftorah on Shabbat during the festival we read about the bloody, apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog and our duty to bury the dead in the aftermath. Feeling happy and joyous yet? One might think that all these reminders of our mortality would render the Jewish People somber and sullen. No! It’s quite the opposite. The Torah reminds us three times that this is our ultimate season of joy, our Z’man Simchateynu. Jews maintain that real simcha is about facing reality. The end of life is part of life, and the cycle continues. We believe that accomplishment outranks potential. Rather than despair, we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah with our best furnishings, singing songs, eating on our finest china, sleeping in comfort. We may be mortal…but as King Solomon says: we should enjoy our life, enjoy our spouse, enjoy our Torah study; in other words, just have fun with it!
David Sacks quotes Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who states that spending time in the sukkah is like getting a Divine hug. After all the davening, judgment, apologizing and fasting, not to mention all the effort cooking and getting the sukkah together, we really need a hug! A kosher sukkah can have two-and-a-half, three or four walls. One might think that only a four-walled hut would do the trick, but just like the shape of the Hebrew letters of the word sukkah indicate (Spell it out), these three configurations are all acceptable. David Sacks mentions that this may be the case since we may not always feel the “hug” of God’s presence. Sometimes it’s overt -that’s the four-wall version. But other times when the hug seems absent, just like the missing walls, we know God is still there. Yom Kippur is commonly associated with fear or awe of God. Sukkot represents the flip side of the coin, love of God. Love of God wins! Is it any wonder that Jews are estranged from their heritage? They flock to the synagogue for the intensity of Kol Nidre but miss out on the hug, the loving, amazing holiday of Sukkot.
One might argue that we enter the realm of near-death on Yom Kippur when we abstain from human needs like food, drink, relations and luxuries in the effort to become angelic for the day. We have just spent the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur in limbo with the Book of Life open and our fate undecided. Perhaps we remain in this angelic state during the Sukkot, not quite in the land of the living throughout the week, and then we launch into the mystical bonus holiday of Sh’mini Atzeret. Therefore Sukkot can be seen as a week off from re-entering our day-to-day lives. Our old life is over, we are forgiven for any misdeeds and the book is sealed on Yom Kippur, then we hover in this spiritual state between years in order to comprehensively inculcate our palpable relationship with the Eternal. This is the true goal of Tishrei: to leave the holy month with a refilled reservoir of spirituality to replenish us over the course of the other eleven months of the calendar.
The inner dimension of our autumnal festival communicates the importance living with joy in all of life’s circumstances. We don’t hide from the reality of our temporal existence. We know we only have so many times around on this annual holiday ferris wheel and hopefully we grow a little more with each revolution. At the end of Sukkot we finish the holiday-infused period with mad rejoicing with our Torah, seven circles or hakafot during the ecstatic celebration of Simchat Torah. We commemorate the cycle of life not in speech but with our dancing feet.
At the conclusion of our recent seven-hour Simchat Torah marathon I joined my friend Saul Blinkoff’s family for lunch at the shul barbeque. We marveled at the depth and pageantry of the event. We agreed how much we had benefitted by investing fully in the month of Tishrei in all its particulars. We realized that only with such commitment to details does true catharsis take place. As Kohelet concludes, “The conclusion of the matter: have awe of God and keep God’s commandments, for this is the duty of man.” As we finished our double burgers Saul said: “You don’t need a huge crowd for this holiday. You just need to be with your family.” We feel so blessed to be part of a connected, happy community. At this time of year, Halloween is a blast, but Jews deserve to take a step beyond trick-or-treating, zombies and hangovers. Our own Chag Ha’asif is the true formula for a year of the spirit.