October 17, 2019 / Comments (0)

Sukkot 5780

An Excellent Holiday Entrypoint for Wilderness Backpacking, and to Learn about the Holiday

You shall dwell in booths seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in booths; so that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 23:42-43

I was backpacking in upstate New York during Sukkot one year, somewhere in the High Peaks, when I was hit with a hail storm. I was at least several miles from any of the shelters, so I hastily put my poncho tarp up using my hiking poles and some bungee cords, and listened as the chunks of ice bounced off of the taut sheet of nylon.

There’s a chronology to the treatment of Sukkot in Torah, the Talmud, the Geonim and Rishonim, and Acharonim through to today, which echoes the approach to all of Jewish life and wilderness experiences.

We start with just doing it. The concept of a pilgrimage festival and sleeping in a sukkah celebrates both the harvest and as a reminder of where we come from.

It’s not indistinct from the “call of the outdoors.” We get outside because we want to remember, if that’s the right word, something primal.

Then, in the Talmud, we get the treatment of how to build a sukkah, and what makes a sukkah “correct” under Jewish law, how we sleep in it, how we take our meals in it, and so forth.

This is where our relationship to the outdoors matures. Maybe we’ve been carrying too-heavy tents and sleeping bags, cooking our food over fires instead of stoves. Like learning to build a proper sukkah, we’re at this point transitioning to lighter gear and less impactful outdoor practices.

Finally, we’re left with “what does this mean?” What are the esoteric, moral, and spiritual dimensions of Sukkot? Why do we welcome the ushpizin?

Will there be land for me to hike on in a decade or more? What can I do to preserve these treasures I backpack through? Why do I keep coming back to the woods?

Sukkot is a holiday that captures gratitude, providence, the payoff of hard labor, and finally, the Jew’s visceral relationship to his or her history. An outdoor Jew then—especially during Sukkot—is sharing a common space with the ancestor who slept beneath the stars for 40 years in the wilderness.

Last modified: October 17, 2019

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