Thursday, October 02, 2014

Why I Spoke About Sukkot in My Rosh Hashanah Sermon

The beginning of my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year had the congregants confused. I opened my sermon by wishing everyone "a very happy and healthy... Sukkot!" By the expressions on the faces of the people in the first few rows I could tell people were puzzled by my greeting. However, I didn't grab the wrong sermon by mistake. I didn't fall a few minutes earlier, hitting my head and then erroneously thought it was a different holiday.

I really did intend to wish everyone a Chag Sukkot Sameach - a happy Sukkot festival. Why did I choose to talk about Sukkot when that holiday is actually two weeks after Rosh Hashanah? I'll explain. I'm realistic about the fact that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there are the biggest crowds gathered together in the synagogue. However, when the Sukkot festival arrives a couple of weeks later there won't be nearly as many people gathered together. And that’s a shame.

Sukkah for Jewish Holiday of Sukkot

So, I decided that I'd use my main speaking opportunity during the first day of Rosh Hashanah to teach about Sukkot, explaining why it's my favorite holiday and encouraging families and individuals to return to the synagogue on Sukkot to experience a fun holiday (without sounding like I was giving a guilt trip). I won't know what type of impact my words had until Sukkot, but in most synagogues it's a culture that will take several years to change. Incidentally, I'm told that while the problem of Jewish people attending synagogue services in droves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but then not returning for Sukkot is not only a problem in the Conservative and Reform congregations. Modern Orthodox rabbis tell me that they see a drop off in numbers on Sukkot as well, albeit not nearly as drastic.

In my sermon I was careful to not sound like I was admonishing anyone for not embracing the Sukkot festival, but I also strongly encouraged everyone to try an aspect of Sukkot this year (i.e., buy a lulav and etrog set, build a sukkah, visit a neighbor's sukkah, etc.). I explained how I thought it was a shame that so many Jewish people haven’t fully experienced the joy and fun that is Sukkot. I shared that Sukkot is my favorite Jewish holiday and offered the many ways that Sukkot is similar to Thanksgiving, my favorite secular American holiday.

My sales pitch for Sukkot observance included the fact that building a sukkah is a physical task that many will embrace. Those who struggle to find the spiritual nourishment in Judaism might enjoy the act of building the sukkah -- a more hands-on, tactile endeavor. I talked about how I take great pride each year in building my family’s sukkah. I shared that it's a beautiful opportunity for a family activity as well. When my children were younger they were only able to watch me put up the sukkah walls and then I’d let them decorate it with their school projects, but as they have gotten older they have become useful building assistants. Having friends and family enjoy delicious meals in our sukkah under the stars is certainly a highlight of the holiday.

I closed my sermon with the following words that I hope others will take to heart as well:

If you haven’t fully experienced Sukkot I think you should give it a try. Do it in steps at first. Buy a lulav and etrog so you can come to shul and fulfill the mitzvah of taking the four species. Go to one of the many websites where you can buy a pre-fabricated sukkah. Or, if you’re a little more daring, go to a local Home Depot or Lowes hardware store and buy the materials to build your own sukkah. Let your kids or grandkids or the kids in the neighborhood decorate it. If you’re not quite ready to build your own sukkah, attend a meal at a friend's sukkah. I think you might find what I have found – Sukkot is a really fun holiday. Sukkot truly is the Thanksgiving of the Jewish year. It’s a time when we can find joy and comfort in our history and in our ancestors’ agricultural way of life. It’s an opportunity for us to feel grateful for what we have and to get a sense of the fragility of other people’s living situations. It’s a time for us to embrace the hospitality of Judaism and for us to seek out the spiritual.

I wish everyone a G'mar Chatimah Tovah -- may we all be signed and sealed for another year of health and contentment in the Book of Life. And may those who have never truly experienced the joy of Sukkot, begin to embrace the festival this year and find happiness in its rituals.


Rachel Kapen said...

It is so true, however, most people work on Sukkot so only retirees usually come and schools that would be closed on Rosh HShanah and Yom Kippur won't do it on Sukkot which is considered less holy.
Our little sukkah is already standing on the deck, waiting to be decorated after Yom Kippur.
So, have a Hag Sukkot Same'ach.

gegeneb said...

Have you read Exodus? ..of course. Does this describe a device (tabernacle of the wilderness)? Designed by God and built by those Jews. Did this device have a mercy seat? (slab of gold). Was that covered by 2 cherubs, made of beaten gold? (not as usually depicted but COVERING !(haulraum). Compare w/ scientists create matter from light.I see a definite connection.

gegeneb said...

This connection between science and Exodus is new. very new. It is a true breakthrough! Read and comprehend this tabernacle equipment- what it supposedly did, and check out the scientists create matter from light; where they use a slab of gold to super-energize a beam of light and aim that into a gold haulraum (can)& another beam. VOILA transformation!

Anonymous said...

There was a Conservative synagogue in my area that once had a men's club luncheon inside during chol hamoed sukkot even though the sukkah was big enough and the weather was fine.