It’s 2019 and here we are, educated people, carrying around palm fronds and a citron while the rest of the world is busy being productive. What’s with the Jews and their stubborn insistence on living in a world of superstitions and anachronisms?

For many Jews our traditions are worse than irrelevant, they’re downright embarrassing. But I can’t help thinking that Judaism has gotten a bad rap, not only among anti-Semites, but also sadly, among our own people.

How much more interesting would it be if the Lulav and Etrog (the Hebrew names for the palm frond and citron I just mentioned) were ritual objects ofHow much more interesting would it be if the Lulav and Etrog were ritual objects of the Ojibwa? the Ojibwa? Then perhaps, we’d feel we were objectively investigating something, let’s say... anthropological, something entirely removed from who we are as a people—and therefore, something that feels very safe. But on Sukkot, we are not ‘investigating,’ we are ‘participating.’ We are partakers in the ancient, still vital, rituals of our own people.

What’s at the root of the Sukkot rituals? Why do people from all walks of life, from neuroscientists, to lawyers, from poets to mail carriers continue to observe our traditions? The key to understanding ‘why’ is a key to the nature of both G‑d and the physical world. Judaism insists that the universe and all that it contains, from the shell of a garden snail to the Milky Way, was “creatio ex nhilo” — that is, created from nothing.

While other schools of thought nominally embrace this idea, they don’t go far enough. Judaism’s philosophical difference (and it’s a huge difference) is that nothing ‘has to be.’ There is no first cause other than G‑d. Most of us make the assumption that clouds exist to provide rain, that gravity exists to hold things in place, and that cells divide to allow living organisms to grow —and we give these basic assumptions a reality, an essential truth, they don’t truly deserve. There’s a parable that helps explain this thorny concept:

A simple man looks out a window and sees a rock flying past. He mentions to a wise man standing nearby that he’s just seen a wondrous thing; a flying rock. The wise man smiles. He knows rocks don’t fly. He knows that someone threw the rock, and that as soon as the energy that moved the rock through the air has dissipated, the rock will revert to its original condition of flightlessness.

Judaism posits that our world is like the rock in this parable, that it has absolutely no existence of its own, and should the Force of G‑d’s will cease to give it the appearance of existence, the world will, just like the rock, revert to its original condition of ‘nothingness’. This, according to Judaism, is how intimately, how fundamentally, and how lovingly G‑d is constantly ‘creating’ the world.

On Sukkot, we give expression to this idea by taking the lulav and etrog and waving it seven directions — center, right, left, up, down, forward, and backward—representing the total possible directions in the physical world. The eighth ‘direction,’ which is not a direction in any sense we can comprehend, denotes the transcendent aspect of G‑d, who at every moment, is “throwing the rock” of our reality, as it were, into existence.

Sukkot therefore, is a time for both an intellectual acknowledgement of the primacy of G‑d, but perhaps more importantly, of our joy in possessing such an intimate relationship with G‑d —a relationship that with our participation, brings us confidence that we will undoubtedly have a year of health, of happiness, and abundance for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world at large.

Judaism is ancient, but it’s not primitive. It’s an indescribably complex system of ritual, and metaphor whose purpose is to teach humankind about their own purpose in an indescribably complex universe.

And one more thing... our rituals are at least as interesting as the Ojibwa’s.