What’s a Sukkot?

It’s not every day you see a lulav and etrog, even in Manhattan. You can tell life’s too busy when you miss that it’s sukkot. Not that I’m Jewish, but I have been invited to sukkot a time or two by a friend, and it was always a fun, relaxed occasion. A festive little booth in the back yard, sweet wine and cookies. Running the rat race in New York City it is sometimes easy to forget. On my hurried footrace to some place or another, I noticed a group of Orthodox Jews standing along East 42nd Street with lulav and etrogs in hand. So distracted was I that I only vaguely wondered, “why are they holding those at this time of year?” Several blocks later, entering the Port Authority Bus Terminal I saw a man just standing as the crowds parted around him like the Red Sea. In his hands lulav and etrog. Finally it dawned on me: sukkot. It is fall, the time of year when I used to be able to enjoy the bounty of nature and the good-natured holidays. A time before when.

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The Hebrew Bible prescribes a set of three pilgrimage holidays: sukkot, shavuot (pentecost to the Greek, or Christian), and passover. Of the three, all associated with the exodus from Egypt in some traditional way, sukkot is the most lighthearted. The command to live in booths is said to be a reminder of the dwelling in tents during the wilderness wandering. Anthropologically speaking, it probably goes back to an ancient tradition of living in huts during the harvest when you don’t always have time to go home and tuck yourself comfortably in every night. Combines hadn’t been invented, and harvesters had to work long hours to ensure that the crop was gathered in. Eventually it became a celebratory occasion. Nice of Moses to allow a bit of festivity here.

Back while at a certain seminary in Wisconsin, a local Jewish friend used to invite my Hebrew Bible class to sukkot. Numbers were small, and invariably wary—were they going to be proselytized by the other? No, but they were invited to shake the lulav and etrog, sip a little wine, and chat about Leonard Cohen. A bit of a cultural exchange in the midst of prolonged indoctrination. I often wonder if my friend continued the tradition after I was asked to leave. The Christian school never made any reciprocal invitations, of course. Ecumenism is often a one-way street. So I stopped a moment at smiled at the stranger in the bus station, solemnly holding lulav and etrog aloft. Life is a bit too busy when we can’t even take a moment to consider all the things we take for granted every day.

Gas Station Sukkot

One of the largest culture shocks that attended moving to New Jersey was the fact that you don’t pump your own gas here. By the time I was driving regularly, pumping your own gas was a fact of life. I’ve lived in at least half a dozen states and in all of them you pumped your own fuel. Until New Jersey. Now when I visit other states I sometimes sit dumbly waiting for the attendant to come to the window and ask what I want. You get used to being waited on.

Yesterday morning I stopped for gas – I do a lot of driving between my various classes, so this is a sleepy ritual. The attendant came and began the usual refueling when another customer stepped up to the driver’s side window. “Are you Jewish?” he asked. Actually, it is a question I am asked not infrequently. The stranger then wished me happy Sukkot, which was nice; I’ve always enjoyed the Sukkot festivities I’ve attended. He then proceeded to tell me that the country was in a mess, but as long as we held up the name of Jesus everything would be alright in the end. “We just need to hold up the name of Jesus,” he repeated.

I drove away full of gas. I wondered how we’d gotten from Sukkot to Jesus so quickly – the transition usually takes longer than that. Back at Nashotah House, a local Jewish doctor frequently invited me to bring my Hebrew Bible students to Sukkot at his house. A kind of thanksgiving celebrated outdoors, we’d sit in his stylishly decorated booth, eat snacks, and shake the luvav. By the time we returned to seminary for evening prayer, it was back to Jesus. I’ve never been proselytized at the gas pump before. I may have to rethink what the largest culture shocks have been, moving to New Jersey.