Take time to sit in a sukkah, being mindful of its symbols

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Leviticus 22:26-23:44

Numbers 29:12-16

Zechariah 14:1-21

Sukkot provides an opportunity for Jews to step back from fast-paced lives to appreciate Judaism's sacred and enduring symbols, especially when cell phones, the Internet and a whole host of new-fangled contraptions have become the revered icons of our age. The primitive, natural, timeless, genuine symbols of Sukkot provide rich meaning that hearkens to a simpler life than that of today's high-speed technological era.

Consider the lulav (composed of palm, myrtle and willow branches), the citron or etrog and the sukkah, all humble, unprepossessing products of an uncomplicated world. While representing the agricultural roots of civilizations from which emerged, they are rich in meaning for the modern era as well. Tradition ties the character and virtues of the patriarchs to these symbols. During worship on each day of the festival, the symbols of Sukkot often are carried around the synagogue during the morning service.

The liturgy that accompanies these circuits is associated with specific incidents in the lives of our patriarchal antecedents. For example, on the first day of Sukkot, Abraham is acclaimed as the one true believer of his generation; we recall Isaac, saved at the last minute by the sacrifice of a ram in place of him; and Moses is heralded as the one hero who transmitted the true Law to Israel. On each day of the festival, comparable events are recalled.

The Midrash extends the meaning of the Sukkot symbols to a personal level by commenting on Leviticus 23:40: "…take the product of hadar — goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days in the year…throughout your generations."

The Midrash links the three branches and the etrog that comprise the so-called "four species" with different types of individuals. The palm, with taste but no aroma, symbolizes those who possess Torah but fail to practice kind deeds; the myrtle, with aroma but no taste, represents good deeds without Torah; willow, without taste or aroma, denotes individuals who practice neither good deeds nor Torah; and the etrog, with both taste and aroma, represents the ideal, a person immersed in Torah and good deeds. God instructs that they all be bound together in one community in order that they might learn from one another and mitigate each other's shortcomings. Thus, this cluster of branches and piece of fruit are transformed into clal Yisrael — the entire community of the Jewish people (Leviticus Rabba 30.12).

Each of the four species also represents a part of the human anatomy and a trait associated with it: the etrog, the heart, is believed to be the center of wisdom; the palm, the backbone, represents uprightness and integrity; the myrtle, the eye, signifies enlightenment; the willow, the lips, denotes worthy speech.

The sukkah also provides rich metaphors. As much as modern technological innovations provide meaning, stability and permanence to life, the sukkah reminds a Jew that just as the fragile booth can be blown away by the wind, so too, everything we have and prize can disappear without warning. The sukkah provides an opportunity to step back, to think about a simpler time of life, as well as our lives.

Recognizing the richness of Sukkot's gifts, take an opportunity this year to sit in a sukkah, even if for only a few moments. With thankful heart and thoughtful consideration, be mindful of the primeval symbols and deeper visions of Sukkot. Linger for a just a moment and read this modern psalm with gratitude and the knowledge that it is still possible to enjoy these simple gifts of the earth:

Sit beside me, Kind Visitor, Between these billowing walls, Broken light through roof branches: Hold me fall breezes.

I invite You, Kind Healer, To sit in my sukkah, To rest in my presence As I recline against Yours.

I invite You to sweeten these days With the etrog's fragrance, Tart and pleasing, A boon to my weary senses.

I invite Your companions Of hope and faith, Healing and wishes, Wholeness returned.

Allow my hospitality, In this place of peace, Where together we plan recovery, Fragility turned to strength

— (c) Debbie Perlman