I don’t mean to sound heretical, but if given my druthers, I would rather Jews observe the seven days of Sukkot than the 25 hours of Yom Kippur. (Of course, I would prefer they do both, but this is one of those hypothetical conundrums.)
It is more than an issue of the seven-to-one-day ratio. Yom Kippur is observed in the synagogue, which is important but not sufficient for Jewish survival if Jews do not also observe in their homes. Sukkot is observed in the home, actually outside the home, on the porch, in the backyard or courtyard, or on the roof, in a little homemade hut. In that way, it is like Passover: a time to surround oneself with family and friends.
Yom Kippur is about denial. We wear white and leave our jewelry and leather at home. Sukkot is about finding balance. The hut, called a sukkah, is decorated with homemade items like strings of popcorn and cranberries, paper chains and lanterns, and purchased decorations each of which has a story, like the painted tin birds we bought at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival a few years ago, or the carved wooden apples my husband found at Yosemite National Park.
Yom Kippur is about afflicting ourselves with prayer and fasting. Sukkot is about eating and celebrating. Tradition refers to Sukkot as zeman simhateinu, the time of our joy. In the olden days, communities would celebrate by having festivals. Today, many Jewish day schools observe this by taking their students to a local theme park. The joy of the festival reminds us that Judaism is fundamentally a joyful religion filled with celebration, and we can all use a little more celebration in our often tension-filled lives.
Yom Kippur is about atoning for our sins, which is transcendentally important. But without Sukkot, the real meaning of Yom Kippur–to focus ourselves on what is most important in life–can all too quickly become transient.
Sukkot, with its emphasis on leaving our home for a hut and inviting guests, is about realizing that what we own is not who we are, and that what we do is not important unless our actions include welcoming the needy and lonely to our tables and otherwise caring for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Finally, Yom Kippur is all about us as individuals, and Sukkot is all about us as part of a historic family that begins with Abraham and Sarah, who we invite into our sukkah on the first night as ushpazin, guests. Each night we invite another set of guests from our ancient family tree, linking us to the continuity of our people and our link to God.
When we observe Yom Kippur and miss Sukkot, we miss fully half of what it means to be a Jew, perhaps the most important half. In my book, Sukkot trumps Yom Kippur any day.