Sukkot is a great time for interfaith outreach.
Twelve students are taking my graduate course on “Ritual and Sacred Ceremony” at the Vancouver School of Theology. They represent nine distinct religious traditions. Our family has invited the whole class to visit our sukkah.
Students will enjoy the best of Jewish ritual: home based, food filled, seasonally attuned. seasonally focused.
But those are just an extra bonus. Really, I’m inviting the students because our Biblical prophet Zechariah told me to.
When war and plague have finally ended, “survivors from every nation will gather in Jerusalem…to celebrate Sukkot,” wrote Zechariah (14:16).
Zechariah’s time-stamp — according to his book — is 520 BCE. He has seen two empires at war; he describes a region in ruins. But he feels hope; he dreams about restoration. And he recommends communal, multi-faith prayers for rain on Sukkot.
Why? For historical, ceremonial, spiritual, and political reasons!
History: First Sukkot in the Second Temple
Zechariah is called a “post-exilic” prophet, because he wrote as Jews were returning from exile. In 586 BCE, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar exiled wealthy and educated Jews from Judea. He expected his empire to become richer, and Judea to become poorer. Just 47 years later, his empire fell to Persia. Persia preferred healthy, self-governing colonies, and allowed Jews to return to Judea.
Returning Jews saw themselves as indigenous people re-connecting with their land. But local inhabitants did not welcome them. Poor Jews who had survived the wars in Judea resented them. Non-Jewish locals suspected them. Negotiations between groups were so challenging, it took twenty years for the returnees to build a modest little Temple. In 516 BCE, just before Sukkot, the building was completed. Sukkot would have been the post-exilic community’s first formal open house event. An opportunity — Zechariah advised — to welcome its multi-faith, multi-cultural neighbours.
Ceremony: Sukkot as an Armistice Ritual
Sukkot practices today echo Biblical practices. We build huts, share seasonal foods, and eat outdoors. On the last day, we pray for rain and remember our dead with Yizkor prayers.
Imagine a Sukkot celebration after war has torn up a region. Small groups of survivors gather in one place. They set up huts and tents; welcome one another as guests; harvest and hunt together as best they can; eat together outdoors; and grieve their dead together.
Somewhat like the feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621. The colonists and their Native treaty-mates, the Wampanoag Confederation, feasted together. Three years earlier, many Wampanoag had died of a plague. Earlier that year, half the British colonists had died. Still, the survivors celebrated their friendship.
Neither the treaty nor the peace lasted. But the memory of the ceremony haunts us — as an ideal.
Spirituality: Sukkot and Eco-spirituality
Menorah, scrolls, and Jerusalem are important Jewish symbols. All show up in Zechariah’s book. But he is not attached to authorized traditional symbols. In his numinous dreams, he sees an olive tree, a flying bathtub, a measuring tape, and the four winds. Each one shows him an aspect of God.
Horses appear, too. They start as terrifying weapons and transform into divine messengers of peace. When the great interfaith Sukkot comes — Zechariah dreamed — horses will be dressed as high priests, wearing sashes that say “Holy to the Lord.”
Zechariah felt spiritual potential everywhere. In people, animals, and plants. He saw all life intertwined in a single regional ecology. And all humans morally responsible for its balance. Literally, he said, we must all pray together for “rain.” Metaphorically, he meant, we must act together as environmental stewards.
Politics: Sukkot as an Affirmation of Shared Values
Zechariah knew that greed threatens ecological balance. He saw profit-driven empires roll over everything in their paths. For him, there is only one way to resist: together. By sharing economic justice. Acts of care. Business integrity.
Today we like to say: all major spiritual traditions teach these values. So, why not gather once a year to affirm them together? Sukkot — Zechariah says — would be an excellent time. That’s what our class will do. Together.
Photo by Charles Kaplan