The historical and religious roots of Sukkot are somewhat obscure as it celebrates not an event, but rather a period of time in Jewish history. Yet the mitzvot or commandments of this holiday provide insight into the holiday's many layers of meaning as well as the contemporary message that it conveys.
On Sukkot, we have only three obligations: to dwell in the sukkah or booth that is intended to be an impermanent structure; to wave the *four species which make up a long palm-like branch called the lulav-a combination of myrtle, palm, willow-and the esrog or lemon-like fruit; and finally to be happy and rejoice. This is in sharp contrast to observing Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur where we spend hours in the synagogue praying and contemplating, reviewing our misdeeds and vowing to change for the better.
On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur God often seems remote, and the liturgy of the season reflects this. God is frequently referred to as a "Ruler" or a "Judge" who sits on a throne on high. But on Sukkot, as we leave the confines of the synagogue for the outdoors, God seems closer. We wave the lulav and esrog and call out, Ana Adonai Hoshiah Na-- God save us. It is as if we are shaking God by the lapels and saying, "So nu? Where have you been all this time?"
Outside in the sukkah, with its incomplete roof and temporary walls we are reminded of the precariousness and the fragility of life. We are reminded of how little control we have over life, how dependent we are on God and nature, and then we are commanded, ironically enough, to find joy in it. In conjunction with this command, Rabbi Irving Greenberg in his book The Jewish Way teaches us that, "The liberated person is the one who learns to accept the daily challenges of existence as the expression of self-fulfillment and responsibility ... True maturity means learning to appreciate the finite rewards of [the] everyday."
Although we leave the High Holidays behind and enter Sukkot with resolutions for the year ahead, the real work begins not when we make those promises, but when we begin to fulfill them. Sukkot, which does not commemorate an event, but rather a journey contains the implicit challenge to accept the daily complications and frustrations of living, and then to do so with joy.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, which is read each year on Sukkot, echoes this message, reminding us that life is indeed fleeting, and it is incumbent upon each of us, to find "contentment in our lot". (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
*One interpretation of the symbolism of the four species likens them to different parts of the body, working in harmony, such as the eyes, ears, lips or spine. Others liken these species to the various segments that come together to make up the Jewish community.
This story originally appeared on JewishFamily.com.