Living Arts Weekly: Celebrating Sukkot

October 9, 2022

Festivals are universally-shared celebrations of life, and they are as diverse as the people of our beautiful planet. In celebration of the festival traditions that bring us together, we would like to share with you the experiences of several of our LifeWays family this year, all from different walks of life and spiritual traditions. Today, our friend Yael Raff Peskin writes about the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Yael interweaves her Jewish observance with Zen mindfulness practice and the nature-based teachings of Waldorf education. In KULANU (All of Us), Yael created a year-round, nature-based program for infants-preschoolers, sharing Jewish tradition in an outdoor Waldorf-inspired setting. She is the mother of three adult children and grandmother to one of the sweetest people she has ever met!


The Season of Our Joy: Celebrating Sukkot,
The Jewish Autumn Harvest Festival
September 2022 / Tishrei 5783 

With the coming of the full moon, we begin the joyous festival of Sukkot (pronounced “su-KOTE”), the week-long Jewish autumn harvest festival. Much like Thanksgiving, Sukkot is a time to gather with family and friends to share the bounty of the season. 

Sukkot ushers in the culmination of the Jewish high Holy Days and the Season of our Joy (Z’man Simkha-teynu). To fully appreciate how deep and great is our joy at this time of year, here is a little context to understand Sukkot’s place in the sacred jewish calendar.




The Lead-up to the High Holy Days
According to Jewish tradition, the summer months are spent letting go of what no longer serves us and clearing out what we no longer need. It is a time of communal grieving for what was lost when the Great Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed thousands of years ago and, also, a time of grieving what has been lost in our own communities in our own day and age.

Following a period of mourning, the guidance is to take stock of what has been left behind, searching through the rubble for precious gems glistening in our lives. To take a kind of spiritual inventory. Before moving forward to clean up the mess or chart a new course, we take a full month (the month of Elul) to simply observe exactly where we are in our lives at this moment in time … to open ourselves to accept all that is–the treasures and the broken vessels–with the utmost compassion, free of judgment or derision.

The High Holy Days
The summer months are the lead-up to the High Holy Days, which usher in the new year on the Hebrew calendar (with the new moon and the month of Tishrei) and generally coincide with the coming of autumn. Over the course of the first ten days of Tishrei, we prepare ourselves to enter a new year. The first two days (Rosh haShanah, literally “Head of the Year”) are spent in deep reflection of the inventory we have gathered as we begin to set intentions for the coming year — what behaviors we would like to shift, what qualities we would like to cultivate, how we would like to show up differently in our relationships and  in the world. A thorough review and closing out of the year that just ended as we are poised to enter a new one.

The traditional imagery includes an opening of the gates of abundant divine compassion, and we are invited to spend those first nine days seeking forgiveness from others for all of the ways we have mis-stepped and missed the mark over the course of the last year. This is a time for us to meet the world with our most open hearts, to offer forgiveness to others and to ourselves to the best of our ability. Some hurts are so great and so deep that it is almost impossible to forgive. This is the work of this most holy time, when the gates of comfort and encouragement are wide open to offer support from all of the cosmos.

We spend the entire tenth day, Yom Kippur, fasting from sunset the night before until sunset on that day, focussing all of our energy on connecting with the Divine. After spending the last nine days resolving to enter the coming year on a new path forward, and trying to make right all of our worldly relationships, now we come to the Day of Atonement. A day of deep connection with the Divine and the journey of our souls. The traditional liturgy of the day guides us through gut-wrenching and heart opening prayers and melodies, and culminates in the closing of the gates.

Celebrating Sukkot
Emerging from Yom Kippur, feeling emotionally exhausted and spiritually cleansed–ready to meet the new year–we embark on the sacred task of constructing autumn huts (sukkot)! We have three days to construct temporary dwellings where we will spend a week, celebrating the autumn harvest.

The tradition is to dwell in temporary huts throughout the week, recalling when our ancestors lived in harvest huts made of natural materials gleaned from the fields while engaging in harvesting autumn vegetables and other gifts of the season. A sukkah (pronounced “su-KAH”) is a harvest hut (sukkot is plural) built with three walls,leaving one side open to welcome in guests. Although the walls of a sukkah can be built using any type of material, many people try to use bamboo and other natural materials. The roof of a sukkah needs to be made with greenery that will not wither during the week the sukkah is up. Many people use palm fronds or bamboo. For a sukkah to be kosher (according to tradition), the branches of the roof must be placed wide enough apart so that the stars can be seen through the roof, and close enough to feel like a shelter. (The tradition says that the spaces in between the leafy branches cannot be larger than your hand with your fingers spread apart.)

At KULANU Playgarden, the children and their families have delighted in decorating our community sukkah with branches and fruits and vegetables from their gardens and farms, as well as with hand-painted decorations that they made together, marking each new year on the Hebrew calendar. Current and alum KULANU families love to gather all together for delicious potluck celebrations in our beautiful sukkah, and many stay overnight for one or more nights in the sukkah as well! All week long, the KULANU children had snacks, meals, and their nap times in the sukkah, and enjoyed hearing stories and reading books about Sukkot.

Sukkot Rituals
There are many rituals associated with Sukkot, calling in the many gifts of the season and celebrating our joy.

USHPIZIN:  Every night of Sukkot, one of the Ushpizin (spiritual guests) is welcomed into the sukkah, each one is associated with one of the seven qualities of the (lower) Tree of Life: Boundless Lovingkindness; Discernment and Restraint; Beauty and Harmony; Perseverance; Awe; Interconnection; Divine Majesty.

LULAV & ETROG:  Four Species — willow, myrtle, palm and citron (etrog) — are gathered to bring together the four elements (earth, air, water, fire)  in our sukkah. Many different teachings are offered surrounding the symbolism of these four species, inviting in lively discussions among everyone who gathers in the sukkah.

Our KULANU Sukkot celebrations have also been greatly enriched by integrating other spiritual practices and nature-based rituals of KULANU families from other traditions. The sukkah, itself, has been adorned with festooning chains of popcorn and cranberries, a beloved tradition of many families who decorate their trees in winter. One year, when I was sharing how to shake the lulav and etrog in seven directions (east, south, west, north, above, below, center), a KULANU father who is a Native American Medicine Man grew very excited. “That’s so similar to our practice of calling in the seven directions with sacred chant,” he exclaimed. I handed him the lulav and etrog, and he proceeded to mesmerize and inspire us with his deeply soulful chanting as he guided us through honoring the wisdom of what each direction has to offer. This became an integral and cherished part of our KULANU tradition, forever changing the experience of lulav shaking for all of us.

PSALM 27:  To strengthen our spiritual resolve throughout this period, it is the tradition to recite Psalm 27, beginning on the first day of the month of Elul and continuing all the way through the end of Sukkot. Included below is an interpretive version that I wrote to share with the KULANU children and their families.

Chag Sukkot Sameakh! (Happy Sukkot) — May the week of Sukkot bring many moments of boundless joy to each of us. And may everyone the world over dwell in safety under the full moon and in shelters of peace.

– – – – – – –


Interpretive version by Yael Raff Peskin

Within me there is infinite light and boundless energy —
    Why should I fear?
I am filled with strength —
    I have nothing to dread.
Though darkness burns with me,
   it cannot consume me.

Even when others do not support me,
    I am not afraid.
Even when I feel attached,
    deep roots hold me.

One thing I hope,
    One thing I seek:
To dwell in the present moment all the days of my life,
    appreciating the beauty that surrounds me,
        cherishing the ones I love,
            knowing we are together always. *

When the world feels overwhelming,
I take refuge in Nature
and seek out a shelter of peace —
a trustworthy tent deep in the forest,
or a simple cabin perched on a rocky cliff above the sea.

In the calm spaciousness,
I can lift my head above water
and sing a joyous song.

I sing and dance and make music
for all of the cosmos,
and ,my voice reaches
far above the skies.

Mountains and oceans
hear me cry out,
and cradle my tenderness
with kindness and compassion.

In the familiar echo,
I listen for what is true.
My heart opens
and urges me onward.

With each breath,
I dwell more fully
in the present moment.

May I uncover hidden truths
and not allow anger to mask what is real.

To all that dwells divinely in Nature:
You have been my refuge for all of my days.
Do not abandon me now.
Do not forsake me.

Even though my parents nop longer live in their bodies,
their love and wisdom never cease.
My own breath sustains me now.

I look to the heavens and all of Nature
for guidance and support
along the path of integrity,
so that I may meet whatever challenges arise
with unwavering grace and courage.

Even when I stumble,
I am not deterred
in my quest for
equanimity and peace
within myself
so that I may pursue
justice for all who dwell on earth.

May I find the strength needed
to go forth and persevere.

Hope encourages my every step forward.

* With the young children, I stop here. We recite it every day together at KULANU from the first of Elul through the end of Sukkot.

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