Making Your Sukkot Celebration More Meaningful
Chances are, you’ve been celebrating Sukkot the same way every year since you were a child.
Erecting and decorating a sukkah in the yard, waving the lulav and the etrog, and looking up at the stars as you eat your meals in your temporary dwelling.
This year, we invite you to look a little deeper into the meaning of Sukkot and refresh the way you give thanks for God’s protection in the desert and the bounty of the har-vest. You can get a head start by using some of the holiday’s other names: Z’man Simchateinu, the Season of Our Rejoicing – or hag ha-asif, the Festival of the Ingathering.
There are many ways in which you can make Sukkot more meaningful for yourself and your family. Below, you’ll find eight options for bringing ancient traditions to your modern holiday and some new customs you can employ to find greater purpose and significance as you celebrate.
Make it Personal
Decorating your sukkah can be as important and satisfying as building it. You can use your creative side to bring in tables, chairs, rugs, and wall hangings for a beautiful space in which to celebrate. You also engage your family in creating a unique-to-you set of the Four Species. Try replacing the lulav, etrog, hadas, and Arava with things that are significant and special to the people who will be spending time in the sukkah. The meaning of those four items lies in their connection to the land of Israel and nature as a whole.
This year, you might instead consider plants that grow right in your own backyard or that can be collected while hiking a local nature trail. You could also choose a variety of long-stemmed flowers and an indigenous fruit. The combination can be as distinctive as your family!
Those four objects you just collected? They each symbolize something different, and you can reflect on those symbols to find more meaning during the holiday. Try practicing mindful meditation: choose one species each night and take a few quiet moments to focus on them and how they connect to your life.
Start by taking a few slow, deep breaths and find grounding in the earth beneath your feet. Pay attention to all your senses – the scent of fresh air, the feel of the night breeze, and release any outside thoughts as they come so you can focus on the here and now.
For your first meditation, consider the etrog, its representation of nature’s beauty and bounty, and how you connect to the natural world. The lulav is next, a sign of strength, stability, fertility, and new life – which of those is relevant to you at this moment and how is strength or new life showing up in your life today?
Third, for the myrtle, meditate on both mournful occasions, like a funeral, and joyous occasions, like weddings and other celebrations. Finally, for your fourth meditation, remember the willow that reminds us of both our fragility and resilience. At the conclusion of your 5 or 10-minute reflection, take a few more slow, deep breaths. Feel free to jot down notes about any revelations or epiphanies in a journal afterward!
Did you remember to bring a telescope into your sukkah? You should! One of the sukkah design rules is that the sky is visible through the leaves that make up the roof. Take advantage of the opportunity to do a little star-gazing and count how many constellations you can spot.
It can be awe-inspiring and humbling to realize how small we are and how big the universe is.
Take the time to appreciate all that God created and that he brought you to this day and this place to be able to witness it.
Escape the Everyday
Obviously, a big part of Sukkot is the act of ‘moving out’ into a hand-crafted outdoor living space. It gives us the opportunity to change up our routine and shakes us out of any ruts. But no one says you have to remain in your sukkah 24-7!
As long we’re on this little adventure, take a day or two to go exploring – alone or with family.
Hike a trail you’ve never traveled on before, plan a day trip to a local attraction, or take a long drive to visit extended family or an old friend. As you journey, connect to the spirit of your ancestors and their experiences roaming the desert.
In ancient times, specific sacrifices that were brought to the altar of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. On the first day, it was no less than 13 bulls, two rams, and 14 lambs that were sacrificed. Each day, the number of bulls that were sacrificed was reduced by one. In total, 70 bulls were brought to the altar, aligning with the 70 nations of the world.
Attitude of Gratitude
One of the commandments of Sukkot is to be joyful during the 7-day holiday. In the midst of personal complications, some people may find it difficult to fulfill this mitzvah. Fortunately, there is a simple way to bring more joy into your life – and that is by recognizing and expressing gratitude.
Even during challenging times, there are things to be grateful for. Food and shelter, air in our lungs, people we love and who love us. Maintaining a gratitude journal during the holiday can keep joy at the center of your celebration. Each day, write down three things you are grateful for, no matter how big or small they are.
You can also make it a family activity by placing a gratitude jar in the sukkah, with little pieces of paper that everyone can use to add their own blessings to the jar. Make a ceremony out of reading them out loud at the end of the holiday to fully experience a collective sense of shared joy.
Give to Others Make
Sukkot meaningful by sharing your bounty with others. This can be as simple as donating to charities related to causes you care about, like a food bank or animal shelter. You can also extend a generous offer of hospitality to neighbors and friends to share a meal in your sukkah.
In particular, consider those who may not have a place to celebrate or people to celebrate with.
Someone new to the neighborhood or to your congregation, or even someone newly immigrated to the country. Sharing what you have with others is a mitzvah, and it can be a true happiness-booster to both the people in receipt of your gifts and to you as well.
Call for Family
Jewish people date back to even before the time of ancient Egypt, meaning that generations upon generations of ancestors came before us and celebrated the same holidays that we treasure to this day. Consider adding the ritual of calling ancestors into your sukkah.
There’s no prescription for this, so plan a ritual that makes sense to you. You might choose to have members of the family read a list of names of those who came before. Including photos of loved ones who have passed as you decorate your sukkah can be a lovely way to honor them.
Those who want to go one step further can undertake a genealogy project to uncover unknown facts about their own history.
Pray for Rain
Sukkot aligns with the transition of Israel’s growing season to its rainy season and it is a tradition to pray for rain by reciting Tefillat Geshem towards the end of the holiday week, as it is the time when God is said to decide how much rain will fall in the coming season.
While the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, a Water Libation Ceremony took place every morning of the Sukkot holiday. The water for the ceremony was drawn from the Pool of Siloam in the City of David and was carried up the pilgrim road to the temple. Meanwhile, at night, thousands of revelers would gather in the courtyard for the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, a Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing, for dancing, singing, and revelry. There is even talk of acrobatics and the juggling of flaming torches!
In the times of the holy temple in Jerusalem, a ritual of pouring water over the altar was performed nearly every day of Sukkot. While news of drought and climate change are practically inescapable in modern times, creating your own water ritual or prayer for rain can be a meaningful addition to your holiday. After all, without water, there would be none of nature’s bounty.
You might collect rainwater in a barrel or pot in the weeks leading up to Sukkot. Draw a cup each night to spill on a garden bed or back into a nearby creek, river, or lake, and say a prayer for rain for those who need it as you do.
There are so many ways to make your holiday special and bring deeper meaning to your Sukkot celebrations this year. Choose one or two things that resonate with you and your family to create new traditions that will stay with you through the years. If they bring peace into your heart and joy to those around you, the effort will have been well worth it.