From the bimah to the backyard, God is everywhere


During the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Jews go from the most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur, to one of the simplest, Sukkot, which celebrates the plentiful Fall harvest. In a period of just 14 days, we move from the glorified high holidays to the most down-to-earth festival of all. In the time it takes to polish off the last bite of leftover defrosted brisket, we transcend from praying in the majestic, stained-glass surroundings in our congregation to shaking the lulav with our children in a makeshift outdoor hut. The synagogue is heavenly. The sukkah, literally, is under the heavens. Only in Judaism can we call both the bimah and our backyard holy places of worship.

Sukkot, which is a Hebrew word that means “booths,” is the commemoration of the 40 years our ancestors wandered in the Sinai Desert and set up these temporary shelters. When we invite a guest, called “ushpizin,” to join us in our sukkah for a meal, we symbolically recall the commandment to dwell in booths for seven days. Spending time together under the stars not only reminds Jews of their roots to the land, but also teaches an important Jewish philosophy to live in balance. Rabbis reinforce this profound concept when they tell the story about how to keep two pieces of paper in our pockets at all times. On one piece, we write the words: “I am a speck of dust.” On the other, we inscribe: “The world was created for me.”

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With these words, we realize that we are nothing. And we are everything. When we gaze up to the sparkly heavens on a chilly autumn night, the sukkah reminds us how significant, and yet how small, we really are in the scheme of things. We have a place in the world, and we are connected to a greater being. At the same time, our problems are so trivial.

When we spend time outdoors in a sukkah, whether we assemble our own project at home or hang gourds in someone else’s, we feel that God through nature is part of our everyday lives. We recognize God’s role when we gather the four species of the festive holiday bouquet called the lulav. The lulav is made of three leafy branches — the tall palm tree branch, willow twigs, and myrtle leaves — which are bound together with braided palm leaves. Although it’s a mitzvah to gather the four species ourselves, we also can conveniently buy a lulav, as well as a sukkah kit, at many area temples. The ritual is to hold the lulav in our right hand and the etrog, which looks like a big lemon and has a sweet smell, in our left hand. Then, we wave the species in all directions (east, south, west, north, up and down) to show that God’s goodness is everywhere.

We say the Sukkot blessing: “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, who makes us holy with mitzvot and commands us to dwell in the sukkah.”

By the way, you don’t have to be carpenter to build a sukkah. In fact, there are very few rules to follow, so let our family’s imagination go wild. Rule No. 1: A sukkah has to have at least three walls. You can start with the side of your house for one of the walls. My family used another shortcut–a garden gazebo on the patio. The sides can be constructed of any material, such as lattice, old doors, plywood, sheets, canvas, waterproof tarp, anything that can withstand the wind. Rule No. 2: The roof has to be see-through and preferably made from a natural earth product, such as branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds or sticks that give shade and allow those inside to see the stars in the evening. Rule No. 3: Encourage all generations in your family to help decorate the sukkah, and have fun! We trimmed our spiritual structure with pumpkins, corn stalks, fruit and acorn chains, Indian corn, Rosh Hashanah cards, Jewish artwork, and whatever else reminds us of the bountiful autumn season.

Who knows, I might never want to eat at the kitchen table again.

“The Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to [email protected]