Following the exalted spirituality of Yom Kippur, Sukkot seems somewhat mundane. A little hut, a few decorations, a lulav and etrog, these can hardly approach the awesome mood of Kol Nidre. But perhaps we are not being fair. There are few moments in our calendar that appropriate the grandeur of a Kol Nidre or the exalted nobility of the N’ilah service on Yom Kippur. Spirituality in Judaism occurs on a more ordinary, much more banal level. Sukkot, I think, represents Judaism at its most touching. It is bringing guests into your sukkah, consecrating little children, giving tsedakah, eating, drinking and studying together. This is Judaism at its best. This is what Judaism is all about.
The Sukkah is, of course, a primary symbol of this Festival. In the Torah we are commanded: “For seven days you must live in Sukkot…that your descendants may know that it was in booths that I made the Israelites live when I brought them out of Egypt. I the Lord am your God.” The Sukkah was to remind our ancestors that they were once wanderers in the wilderness who lived in frail, temporary dwellings and that even there God watched over them and led them to the Promised Land. Some Jews will sleep in the Sukkah during this Festival. Many will eat their meals in the Sukkah. Most of us content ourselves by reciting a blessing over some food in the Sukkah.
What are the requirements for building a proper Sukkah? The Torah gives no information. The rabbis filled in the gaps. A Sukkah must have a minimum of three walls, and it must be no more than 30 feet high. It must be at least large enough for the major part of the body to enter standing up. (If you are of average height you shouldn’t have to kneel in order to enter the Sukkah.) The roof is to be covered with cut vegetation. Although the roof is covered with vegetation, there must be an opening so that you can see the sun and stars. In inclement weather you are not obligated to remain in the Sukkah.
The first year we had a Sukkah at my house we thought we would protect the interior by covering the top with plastic. The first night the plastic worked as we expected. It prevented the light rain from soaking us and getting our decorations wet. The next night, however, was a different story. The rain was so intense that the roof could not bear its collected weight. The plastic cover, the water, the corn stalks, the decorations, the roof itself all fell together in a huge mess. We learned an important lesson that day: the Sukkah, frail as it is, fares far better by opening itself to life than by remaining fully enclosed.
In many ways we permit ourselves, at great cost, to become like an overprotected Sukkah, closed off from life’s rain and sunshine. I know persons who studiously avoid making hospital calls or attending funerals because they are afraid of being emotionally affected by those encounters. They find them too depressing. I know of person who, when they get angry at a member of the family – an uncle, an aunt, a brother, a sister – will simply not speak to them or totally avoid them for long periods of time.
These are strategies for pain avoidance. It is painful to confront kin with the source of your grievance and try to work things out. It is painful to expose yourself to suffering or the grief of another. By avoiding the pain, by insulating ourselves against the rain, we also are missing opportunities for sunshine and love.
The image of a proper Sukkah – not totally shielded, partly open to the world – is a good image of the way we ought to live our lives. There is more danger in encapsulating ourselves from the world of feeling than from feeling too deeply. We ought to open ourselves to life’s sunshine and rain, life’s joy and pain.
One of the rules of building a Sukkah is that you must rebuild it each year. You may not let it stand from one year to the next. It is to be a simple temporary dwelling. No matter how stately our permanent residence, we are to leave it during this season to enter a frail, temporary booth. How rich in symbolism is the mitzvah to dwell at least for a while in a frail Sukkah.
Like the Sukkah, our life is so transitory, so frail. An accident, a prolonged illness, the loss of a job all can unexpectedly shatter our lives. All we are left with is the foundation. We must start once again and rebuild. I know a very successful physician who is haunted by nightmares. He is awakened again and again by the specter of poverty, of losing everything he has gained and returning to the poverty stricken lifestyle of his youth. In reality, the chance of that happening is quite slim, but I certainly understand his fear. Our “things,” our homes and cars, our clothes and artwork, dramatize to the world that we are important, that we have status, and cannot be lightly dismissed. Without these “props” we feel less worthwhile, less deserving of respect, even less human. His fear is one we all share.
In the wilderness, dwelling in frail, simple booths, our ancestors were bereft of the props of the affluent settler on the land. Without those props, they became more aware of their true status: their ultimate reliance on God. God did watch over them and guide them. God gave them a sense of their inalienable dignity and worth as they dwelled in the frail booths of the wilderness.
Our lives are so temporary, our health so fragile. May the Sukkah we enter during this season of harvest remind us of that which is truly reliable in this world. Not matter how far we are broken, how badly we are crushed, if the foundation is solid and deep we can rebuild. God gave our ancestors a sense of dignity and worth as they dwelled in the wilderness. Let us remember we are of worth simply because we are human, created in the image of God. God is our Rock and our Foundation. On this festival of Sukkot, let us try to build our base strong and to dig our foundation as deep as we possibly can.