What is the connection between the coronavirus pandemic and Sukkot?

Coronavirus exposes the contingency of human existence — its limitations, arbitrariness and randomness and above all the fact that we depend on factors beyond our control.

Worshipers pray holding the Four Species – palm leaf stalk, citrus, myrtle and willow branch – in a public park in Efrat, October 2020. (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
Worshipers pray holding the Four Species – palm leaf stalk, citrus, myrtle and willow branch – in a public park in Efrat, October 2020.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
In the wording of the Sukkot festival prayer the festival is characterized as “the day of our joy.” This title, of course, is based on the Torah text relating to the Sukkot festival – “Rejoice in your feast” (Deuteronomy 16:14). The meaning is very clear. The Sukkot festival is a harvest festival. Following sowing at the beginning of winter (Heshvan – the second month of the Hebrew calendar) and the tension regarding the anticipation of rainfall, the Sukkot festival marks the harvest – the joy that the crop indeed succeeded and there is food and abundance for the coming year. This joy is in reality a release of tension – existential uncertainty is replaced by the joy of certain and concrete abundance.
This year, however, it is hard to celebrate the Sukkot holiday as usual. We have not been freed from the existential uncertainty. With respect to the health and economic-livelihood “harvest,” the pandemic still hangs over our heads and is forcing a slowdown and freezing of economic and social activity. And the uncertainty is profound – no one knows when and how it will end. No one knows when there will be a vaccine or how effective it will be in stopping the pandemic.
However, there is another aspect to the Sukkot festival – the prayers for rain. Every day during the holiday worshipers encircle the synagogue bimah (prayer platform) and recite the prayer - “Please save, our God, please save” (the Hoshana prayer). As the liturgical poems associated with this prayer point out, it is a prayer for rain and livelihood. We recite it on Sukkot, before the winter. The centrality of this prayer emphasizes the constant uncertainty. We are indeed happy on Sukkot because this year “it worked for us,” but immediately the thought creeps up –”but what will be next year?” so even with the joy we say the Hoshana prayer.
Like every pandemic, coronavirus exposes the contingency of human existence — its limitations, arbitrariness and randomness and above all the fact that we depend on factors beyond our control. Of course, this awareness is contrary to modern consciousness, according to which we can control nature and build social and political institutions as we please. Modern existence and consciousness make us forget the human truth that ultimately our lives depend on forces beyond our control – people, including children, become sick with cancer and also perish in huge uncontrollable fires.
This awareness of contingency constitutes the consciousness of the Sukkot holiday — that joy on this holiday is also founded on deep uncertainty. This uncertainty deepens the joy, but also casts a shadow over it. The reminder of our dependence on uncontrollable factors (as opposed to modern amnesia) provided by the coronavirus, and especially on this Sukkot holiday, is invaluable: This awareness allows us to keep things in proportion and look at things from the vantage point of modesty and even accept the other and learn from them.
The important thing in this context is to honestly confront the contingency, randomness, arbitrariness and limitations that characterize human existence. On this basis, anyone can choose his own way of coping – whether by means of existential resoluteness in the face of the abyss and creating independent worlds of meaning, or a deep belief in God who both fills the world and transcends it.

The writer is a fellow at the Shaharit Institute and senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.