Sukkot, which began last Wednesday night (10/4), is a serious contender for “most obscure holiday.” It is best known for the temporary huts (in Hebrew, sukkot) that traditional Jews eat in and even sleep in during the holiday. Sukkot also involves the daily shaking of a palm frond, a citron, myrtle, and willow, aka the four species (see: Leviticus 23:40).
This holiday can feel inaccessible to many, both practically (it’s hard to find a place to build a hut when living in a city like DC) and intellectually (it’s hard to connect to seemingly arbitrary rituals).
But the central purpose of the holiday is far from obscure. As the Torah explicitly explains: “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days; every citizen of Israel shall dwell in sukkot; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:42-43).
Sukkot, then, is a holiday where we remember our wandering. Interestingly, this is a holiday we are told to observe “for all time, throughout the ages.” (Leviticus 23:41). Even when we are no longer wandering – or perhaps, especially when we are no longer wandering – we disrupt our lives for one week each year and force ourselves to relive our past, collective wandering.
Growth rarely happens from a place of comfort and stability. The act of wandering helps us step outside of what we know and lets in the possibility of surprise and discovery. When we leave the familiar, we learn about ourselves, about others, and about the world. Intuitively we know this – it’s why so many of us love to travel.
Sukkot takes this idea one step further. Vacationing in hotels or hostels is also a break from routine. But Sukkot, unlike most vacations, pushes us outside of our comfort zone by pushing us, literally, outside. The nature of a hut is, well, that it’s in nature.
The wilderness facilitates spiritual exploration. There are so many stories in the Torah of divine encounters in nature: Abraham arrived at monotheism while looking at the sky, Isaac prayed to God in a field, and Jacob and Moses both first encountered God while alone on a mountaintop. The Torah itself was given in the desert.
Being in nature doesn’t answer all of life’s questions, but it helps us more easily confront them. During Sukkot, and in life, wandering isn’t only a physical state – it’s also a mindset; the more we can cultivate this mindset, the more we will grow.
If you are looking to get out of DC for a weekend and are open to learning about different Jewish perspectives on spirituality, you can apply to our Jewish Spirituality Camping Weekend here. While Sukkot will have ended by then, hopefully we will still be carrying the feeling of wandering with us as we navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead.