By Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman
Special to WJW
During Sukkot in ancient times, Jews performed a unique water libation service — called Simchat Beit Hashoevah — inside the Temple in Jerusalem. Outside the Temple, a great celebration took place. The Mishnah tells us that one who has not experienced Simchat Beit Hashoevah has never really experienced joy. During Sukkot, the Gemara tells us, God judges the world for rainfall. We celebrate because we believe that God has chosen us for good fortune.
Sukkot begins at sundown on Oct. 17. One of my fondest Sukkot memories is exploring Brooklyn during the long nights of chol hamoed, the intermediate days of the holiday. On those nights, Chasidic communities gather to celebrate Simchat Beit Hashoevah.
Sukkot the size of airport hangars are decked out in decorations. Bands play all night long with singing around the sukkah that pours into dancing in the street. There is a feeling bursting forth from the burdens of our mistakes and celebrating our renewed relationship with God. Last year I took my kids bowling.
I should not understate the value of family time. I am fortunate to be able to take time off during Sukkot. What I always regret is the time we spend building and decorating our sukkah, and how little time we spend using it. Some years we get invited out for a meal or two during the first days. Sometimes it rains. Maybe we will all go out for dinner somewhere else, and before you know it we are saying goodbye to the sukkah on the final days.
This year of course we will avoid many family activities like the movies and bowling. We also shouldn’t confuse eating outside with eating in a sukkah. By definition, a sukkah is not socially distanced. Halachah tells us to make our sukkah like our real house. The way you are keeping yourself safe in your house is how you should keep yourself safe in your sukkah.
After celebrating Sukkot, this year we will have gone through all the biblical holidays in lockdown. And we mark the tragedy of the more than 200,000 Americans and 1 million people around the world who have died from COVID-19. Our disappointment pales in comparison to the grieving families of the dead and the anxious families of those who are ill. Our quarantining is not only a legal requirement, it represents the highest of mitzvot, saving lives.
While we are stuck at home, many are fortunate enough to have a sukkah. This year’s sukkah offers us a chance to truly dwell in God’s presence. To eat, to sleep, to learn shaded by natural material as our roof, known as schach. This gives us the time to really feel the simchah of Sukkot like never before. Our rejoicing doesn’t need to come from the external. Our joy can come from what’s at home. Singing and dancing with our families, or even singing and dancing with families and friends over Zoom. In ancient times they celebrated over something as simple as water. This year we also have a chance to celebrate the simple blessings in our lives.
Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman is the director of pastoral care at Charles E. Smith Life Communities.