On Sukkot, If You Build It, It May Fall
My misadventures over the years in preparing for Sukkot have been offset by the beauty of the holiday itself.
Sukkahs are physically vulnerable, emotionally protective. And on a clear night, seeing the stars twinkling above offers a fresh perspective on our place in the vast universe.
As we prepare to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, I offer a revised version of a popular column that first appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times and, a number of years later, in The Jewish Week.
Enjoy, and chag sameach.
When it comes to hardware stores, consider me a One-Day-A-Year Jew. And that day comes around just before the holiday of Sukkot, when over the years I would struggle to put up our family sukkah in the backyard. Thank God, it only has to stand for eight days.
Part of the wonderful rhythm of the High Holy Days season is that we go directly from the cerebral solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the hands-on, harvest-inspired, outdoor-focused festival of Sukkot (which begins this year on Monday evening), recalling the wanderings of the ancient Israelites in the desert those 40 long years.
I would make my annual pilgrimage to the hardware store the day after Yom Kippur. Back in the 1970s in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Baltimore, the store was often crowded with pale, scholarly young men in traditional garb roaming around the aisles, inquiring about hammers and brackets and mollies with the same intensity as in grappling with a complex portion of the Talmud. It’s as if the Lord is telling us, there’s more to life than praying inside all day; get thee out there and sweat a little.
Some people remember fondly every car they’ve owned. I can get misty about every sukkah in my life, dating back to the one we had on our tiny back porch when I was growing up in Annapolis, Md. Even though there was barely room for a card table and four chairs inside its wooden walls, my non-Jewish friends in the neighborhood loved playing in my “fort” and no doubt begged their fathers to build them one, too.
The first sukkah I built myself was when we lived in Baltimore in the 1970s. It was a disaster. It was made out of canvas, which I bought from a boating store within walking distance of the Baltimore harbor. When the elderly, leather-skinned salesman in the fisherman’s cap asked me the size of my jib, I was ready to call a cop. I tried to explain that the canvas I was interested in wasn’t actually for my boat but for a “ritual booth” I was building in my backyard. Then he looked like he was going to call a cop.
We came to some sort of understanding, finally, but a strong storm on the first night of the holiday left our sukkah battered, beaten and scattered on the ground. We had to eat our meals in friends’ sukkahs that year.
My misfortune wasn’t limited to my own family that Sukkot. A colleague at the Baltimore Jewish Times had suggested before the holiday that, as a service to our readers, we publish a simple plan, complete with diagram, of how to build a sukkah. It seemed like a lovely idea, and since her husband was building one, she volunteered to write up the plan.
I got a sinking feeling, though, when she came to work after the first two days of the holiday and reported that their sukkah had not survived the storm either. When the phone calls started coming into the office, complaining that our sukkah plan was a flop, I was tempted to tell callers the story about the man who wanted to build a house according to Jewish law.
It seems that none of the rabbis this man approached could find a Judaic text outlining precisely what materials to use and which measurements were appropriate. Finally, he came upon an elderly Talmudic scholar who said he had found an obscure Aramaic tome that did, indeed, instruct exactly how to build a house.
The man was delighted and spent the next six years personally building his home. But on the very first night after he had moved in, it collapsed. Distraught, he ran to the rabbi. “I spent six years building my house according to Jewish law. Why did it cave in the very first night?” he demanded.
The rabbi thought a moment, stroked his beard, nodded, and replied, “Interesting … Rashi [the Talmudic commentator] asks the very same question.”
Each sukkah, by design, is intended to convey the delicate balance between protection and vulnerability, encouraging us to recognize our ultimate reliance on God’s shelter. We see our breath on cold nights and feel the rain come through the permeable roof at times, reminding us of how exposed we are to the elements. But on a clear night, seeing the stars twinkling above offers a fresh perspective on our place in the vast universe.
Sukkot has been a cherished holiday in our family, and each year we have enjoyed the social and communal benefits of inviting friends and relatives for meals in the sukkah. But this Sukkot, as Covid is still with us, will be unlike any other -- except last year’s. In the midst of the pandemic, we are painfully aware of its remaining restrictions on sharing special moments of prayer, celebration and festive meals with loved ones and friends. We yearn for a time when we can freely make social invitations rather than maintain social distancing.
But I take comfort in remembering that there are some special guests who are always welcome in our sukkah, and sukkahs around the world, this holiday. That’s because Sukkot is a time for memory and mysticism. There is a lovely centuries-old holiday custom known as Ushpizin (“guests”), in which we symbolically welcome into the sukkah each meal an illustrious “visitor” from among our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.
“Be seated, be seated, exalted guests,” we recite, “be seated in the shade of the Holy One.”
And as we sit in the sukkah each evening, we can feel the presence, as well, of loved ones who are no longer with us, those whose influence on our lives still shines as clearly as the stars above. Despite the limitations imposed on us this holiday, with faith, memory and imagination we can fulfill the mitzvah of the sukkah meals, sharing a tradition as old as our people — even as we pray for a new year of renewal and resilience.