An excerpt from Guide to Humanistic Judaism and Sukkot Services from 2018 and 2019 presented by Rabbi Jeffrey Falick at the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit. Additional services can be viewed at LibrarySHJ.com
Sukkot follows the Jewish New Year. This eight-day festival, also known as Hag Haasif, Festival of the Ingathering, originally was a fall harvest festival. The sukkot (booths decorated with greens and fruits) were huts built in the fields for shelter during the harvest. In priestly Judaism, Sukkot became a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, a celebration of God’s power. The booths represented the dwellings of the Hebrews during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. Rabbinic Judaism attempted to revitalize this agricultural celebration for an urban population by tying it to the Torah; thus the last day of Sukkot is Simhat Torah, a day of rejoicing in the Torah. Humanistic Jews find human significance in the original Sukkot celebration. Agriculture was the first step, a quantum leap toward human mastery of the environment. As farms grew into settlements, which became towns and cities, human ingenuity and courage propelled civilization toward the secular age and even greater human achievements. Sukkot, then, is a tribute to human prowess. Agricultural, industrial, and technological advances all form the basis of a Humanistic celebration of Sukkot. Sukkot offers an opportunity in the fall for communities to come together, to experience the out-of-doors, to recognize the interconnectedness of humanity, and to acknowledge responsibility for the environment. In ancient times, Jews gathered in booths for the harvest to increase efficiency. For Humanistic Jews, Sukkot offers an opportunity to work together to build the sukka, which then can become the center of an outdoor celebration: a picnic under a roof open to the sun or stars, or a community bonfire that evokes memories of family cookouts or camp overnights. Three additional themes may reflect the agricultural origins of the holiday. First, building and taking apart the sukka may call to mind the transitory nature of human existence and the fleetingness of human experience. Second, the covering of the sukka is organic, suggesting human beings’ dependence upon nature[…] Third, the fullness and beauty of the harvest may focus attention on the abundance of beauty in the world. Humanistic Jews use the ancient symbols of Sukkot—the lulav (a date palm branch tied together with myrtle and willow) and the etrog (a fragrant citron)—as symbols of the holiday.