The month of October unleashes a tension of sorts in our predominantly Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood in Los Angeles. As one walks farther from Pico Boulevard, the ubiquitous sukkot on front lawns give way to macabre Halloween decorations. Jewish kids must grapple with a continuum of responses to trick-or-treating: for the far right, it’s as if the holiday doesn’t exist. In a non-COVID year, Modern Orthodox might allow their kids to make the rounds seeking kosher candy and haunted houses, but downplay any outward signs of participation. Sadly, Jews of other denominations are more likely to be carrying a light saber than a lulav.
I grew up loving Halloween and scarcely knew Sukkot existed. For us Brentwood kids, Halloween had no religious connotation whatsoever. Instead, it was a night of after-hours fun when we normally would be stuck inside doing homework. We relished in a sense of mischief and mystery as we explored the darkened neighborhood streets, stopping at any given household when we needed another sugar fix. As we grew older, All Hallows’ Eve became an excuse to party. Since I garnered only positive associations with this American pastime, I allowed my kids to wander the neighborhood in search of candy. My wife Shira and I would buy their treasure trove of sweets back from them so they wouldn’t destroy their teeth. Shira generally stayed home to supply trick-or-treaters with chocolate and “ooh” and “aah” at their costumes. Sukkot occupies such a primal place in our family life that we didn’t worry about confusing priorities.
Some believe the two holidays occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Whereas Halloween features themes of death and evil, Sukkot celebrates life, the bounty of the harvest and the joy of God’s protective love. I have noticed, however, there are similarities between autumnal commemorations of all cultures. The Chumash refers to Sukkot as Chag Ha’asif, the festival of the ingathering. This annual harvest tribute implies the last crops have been removed from the earth as it descends into the death-state of winter. We see this word asif (ingathering) several other times in the Torah. Remember how the Torah refers to the transition into death? That’s right, we are “gathered to our people.” Therefore, if we substitute the word death for ingathering, Chag Ha’asif becomes the Festival of Death. Whoa! Furthermore, each night of Sukkot we welcome our blessed (dead) ancestors as Ushpizin (honored guests) into our thatched hut. Spooky, right?
Aspects of our ancient Sukkot harvest/mortality celebration are echoed in festivals around the world. Samhain is of Gaelic origins and like Jewish holidays, it begins in the evening. This progenitor of Halloween arises from the ancient Irish belief that this period is one when the boundary between this world and the next is most easily crossed. Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a multiday holiday around Halloween in which folks pray and remember deceased family and friends, blessing their spiritual journey. Our Sukkot celebration ends with the day of Sh’mini Atzeret, during which we offer a Yizkor service to allow the congregation to do pretty much the same thing. Pitru Paksha is a two-week holiday for Hindus that falls during the autumnal equinox. Much like our Kaddish, this ritual is regarded as compulsory to ensure the soul of the ancestor ascends heavenwards.
Perhaps the central connection with mortality on Sukkot is the schach that forms the sukkah’s roof. It cannot be made from living vegetation; in other words, a leafy tree still anchored to its roots hovering over your sukkah renders it posul (invalid for use). Schach must be adama (vegetation), cut off from the ground, dead and disconnected. One lesson we learn from this use of refuse to complete our sukkah: just like true t’shuva can turn our mistakes into mitzvot, we take a waste product, put it on top of the walls of our sukkah and fulfill a mitzvah! Adam, or humankind, comes from the same root as vegetation, adama. Both terms indicate origins from the earth. Just like the schach must be dead, we will also die, returning to the earth. The vision of our sukkah’s schach engenders humility and is a potent reminder of our fragility. Halacha states that the schach cannot be layered so heavily that it occludes the view of the stars above. While schach offers an awareness of our mortality, we keep our eyes on the stars, on our eternity, or as Rabbi Leibele Eiger says, on the gift of our eternal soul in a state of permanent impermanence in this mortal world.
Further morbid connections with this holiday of joy are found in the megillah (sacred scroll) we read this season, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Authored by King Solomon in his old age, this book suggests such cheery concepts as: it is “better to attend a house of mourning than one of feasting,” “a time to be born, a time to die” and “the day of death is better than the day of birth.” Kohelet is related to the word k’hila, or congregation, or a “gathering.” For the Haftorah on Shabbat during Sukkot we read about the bloody, apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog and our duty to bury the dead in the aftermath. One might think that these reminders of our mortality would render the Jewish People despondent. No! It’s quite the opposite. The Torah emphasizes three times that Sukkot is our ultimate season of joy, our Z’man Simchateynu. Real simcha requires facing reality. The end of life is part of life, and the cycle continues. Rather than despair, we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah with our best furnishings, singing songs, eating on our finest china, sleeping in comfort. We may be mortal, but as Kohelet concludes, we should “Enjoy life with a spouse whom we love, eat and drink with a glad heart.”
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said spending time in the sukkah is like getting a divine hug. After all the davening, judgment, seeking forgiveness and fasting of the previous weeks, not to mention the effort cooking and getting the sukkah together, we really need a hug. A kosher sukkah can have two-and-a-half, three or four walls. One might think only a four-walled hut would do the trick, but just like the shape of the Hebrew letters spelling the word sukkah indicate (Samech-Chaf-Hay), these three configurations are all acceptable. The message: we may not always feel the “hug” of God’s presence. Sometimes it’s overt—that’s the four-wall version. But at other times when the hug seems absent, just like the missing walls, we know God is still there. Yom Kippur is commonly associated with fear/awe of God. Sukkot represents the flip side of the coin, love of God. Love of God wins! Is it any wonder so many Jews are estranged from their heritage? They may flock to the synagogue for the intensity of Kol Nidrei but miss out on the hug, the loving, reassuring holiday of Sukkot.
Yom Kippur is a Near Death Experience of sorts: we abstain from human needs like food, drink, relations and luxuries in the effort to become angelic for the day. We have just spent the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur in limbo, with the Book of Life open and our fate undecided. Perhaps we retain this angelic state during Sukkot, not quite in the land of the living throughout the week. Therefore, Sukkot can be seen as a week off from reentering our day-to-day lives. Our old life is over, we are forgiven for any misdeeds and the book is sealed on Yom Kippur. Then we hover in this ethereal, angelic state between the old and new year, giving us time to comprehensively inculcate our refreshed relationship with the Eternal. Finally, on the last day that we shake the lulav and etrog, known as Hoshana Raba, the sealed book of life is officially delivered to shamayim (heaven).
After Sukkot ends, we finish the holiday-infused month with mad rejoicing with our Torah, dancing seven series of hakafot (circles) during the celebration of Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. We complete the renewal of our cycle of life not with speeches but with our dancing feet.
Halloween and Sukkot both commemorate the harvest and the cycle of life. The Jewish take on the season is one of uplift and renewal, celebrating our vibrant lifeforce amidst the inevitability of death. Halloween is a blast, but Jews deserve to take a step beyond trick-or-treating, zombies and hangovers. Our own Chag Ha’asif is the proven formula for celebrating the realm of the spirit.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World