A year of gathering

A year of gathering

Sukkot is over now, but the sweetness and joy of the holiday lingers with me. Sukkot is my favorite holiday. How can you not love a holiday that is all about joy and welcoming? I love decorating the sukkah (though building it right after Yom Kippur is always a challenge), I love the scent of the etrog, I love that Sukkot gets us outside at a time of year when we are starting to turn inward, and I love the reminder to make the effort to cook good food and invite friends and neighbors to join us for meals.

I grew up in an apartment building in Chicago, so my family never had a sukkah. When my husband and I bought our first home, we had no idea how to build a sukkah. We are not handy, so we hung a few gourds on the porch, ate some meals out there, and called it a good-enough sukkah. Over the years, we took little steps, asked some friends to help, invested in a sukkah kit, and eventually had a full-fledged sukkah, complete with a candle chandelier and twinkling solar lights.

I adored our sukkah, but when we moved to New Jersey, we left the kit behind. It was in rough shape, and we thought we would just start over. Then we discovered that the yard behind the apartment we rented had been turned into parking spaces, and we could not figure out where to put a sukkah. For a few years we were back to our good-enough sukkah on the porch, until one day I realized that we could build a sukkah in one of our parking spaces. That was great until this year, when our landlord decided to re-side the exterior of our house. Our parking spaces are now filled with materials and equipment, and once again we returned to hanging gourds on the porch.

Based on my own experience, I thought most people in our congregation also would be daunted by building a sukkah at home, so every year we have a good-enough sukkah challenge. We encourage our members to make a sukkah out of whatever they have — a sheet, a cardboard box, a tent — or just put out some lights and flowers and gourds and invite people to join them.

I know that a good-enough sukkah is not kosher. I have studied the sections of Talmud that discuss everything from how many handbreadths the walls must be to the ratio of sun and shade to whether you can build a kosher sukkah on a ship, in the top of a tree, or on a camel. But I have always believed that what really matters are not the exact specifications but just the joy of being outdoors and gathering people for a meal. It’s the gathering that matters.

Of course, our congregation also builds a kosher sukkah at the synagogue. Each year, our community comes together for a sukkah raising, when we build the sukkah, cook, and make decorations. There always is learning for both children and adults, and this year we brought in Rory Michelle Sullivan, a wonderful Jewish musician and educator, to lead a special program for us. As part of the program, Rory Michelle helped us create a song together to express the ikar — the essence — of Sukkot. We started out with many ideas — joy, harvest, gratitude, safety, and shelter. But in the end, the essence came down to welcoming.

Our song was very simple:

“On Sukkot we welcome strangers.

On Sukkot we welcome friends.

On Sukkot we welcome family

For a meal outside in the sukkah.

V’zeh ha’ikar shel Sukkot. (And that’s the essence of Sukkot)”

Welcoming, gathering, that is the sweetness that is lingering with me from Sukkot. The September 22 edition of this paper had a story about how Rabbi Mendy Kaminker used artificial intelligence to create a calendar for Chabad of Hackensack. The focus of the article was the artwork, but what really caught my eye was the theme of the calendar, which is Hakhel.

I have always appreciated this word because it is from the same root as kehillah, which means community. English doesn’t have a verb equivalent of the word community.  You could say congregate, but it’s not really the same.

I learned from the article that on Sukkot after a sabbatical year, the king of the Israelites gathered all the people at the Temple to hear the Torah.  I also learned that even though we have no king and no Temple in our time, the Lubavitcher rebbe said that we could use the idea of hakhel to connect everyone together, renew our faith, and connect to God.  The rebbe also said that everyone is a leader with the ability to influence others, so everyone should use this year to have as many gatherings as possible.

When I read this, I thought about the sweetness of gathering in a good-enough sukkah. And I thought about how much we all need to gather.  It just happens that this hakhel year is also a year when we have been apart for far too long. What a perfect time to use the idea of hakhel to connect everyone together.

That seems to me to be our challenge now -– to have as many gatherings as possible. They don’t have to be elaborate. It would be good enough to buy a box of cookies and invite a few people over to talk or play a game. It would be good enough to order a couple of pizzas and invite some friends to watch a movie. It would be good enough to ask a few friends to go for a walk together. We can all create our own version of a good enough gathering because we really need to be together.

Let’s make this year of 5783 our year of gathering. Let’s all hakhel!

Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is a past president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding and active member of the council’s anti-racism committee.

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