Lessons Learned From A Little Sukkah

September 22, 2010

In Judaism it is considered a mitzvah to not only dwell in a sukkah, but also to build it. In fact the process is considered one of such joyous fulfillment that it is best to do it as soon after Yom Kippur as is possible. So on Sunday, the day after Yom Kippur we erected a sukkah at my house, which will be used by not only my family but also those in the synagogue who do not have their own sukkah. I am sorry to say it is not really a grand sukkah. In years past we built huge sukkot that sat fifty or more at tables, and were designed by engineers at the congregation. In fact passerby’s including the rabbis from the local Chabad would stop to behold our sukkah ( I think they had sukkah envy). This year though we went for simple, small, and uncomplicated. We will not actually eat our first meal in the sukkah until this evening, the first night of Sukkot, but as is always the case the process of building the sukkah began the process of learning from the sukkah. Here are three living lessons that we can take away from our little sukkah that could.

Lesson #1 – Mobility

Our sukkah was built from a prefab kit. It is constructed from lightweight aluminum poles and synthetic tarps – not exactly the materials that would have been available to my ancestors as they wandered the Sinai wilderness. Yet these light weight materials, the fast construction and the absolute mobility of the temporary dwelling was indicative of the nomadic process. Sukkot remembers that freedom came as the result of pitching tents over 14,600 days and honors the 43,000 meals prepared in the dessert. But more importantly Sukkot reminds us that God is everywhere and undermines the idolatry of rootedness. This doesn’t mean that home and hearth are bad values; rather it serves as a dialectic reminder that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners in this present reality. Our journey in the wilderness began at Passover when Hashem took us out of the land of Egypt and commanded us to eat our last meal there in great haste with “our staff in hand and our loins girded” (I am still a little uncertain and just a little scared of the alternative), an idiom which suggests that we are to be perpetual wanderers.

Lesson #2 – Fragility

As I mentioned our sukkah is quite lightweight and fragile. In fact it is an eight-foot aluminum framed cube with rip-stop nylon sides and a roof (s’chach) made of branches. It actually looks like a cross between a box kite and a Chia Pet. Needless to say it needs to be well anchored to keep it in my own yard. So we secured it with quite a few landscape stakes, ropes and tent pegs. I am only slightly hopeful that our sukkah will make it through the entire week. Only this morning I had to replace some of the roof.

While our sukkah may seem a little under whelming, it is actually right on target. Here are some of the stipulations of an appropriate Halakhic sukkah (according to Jewish law).

•The sukkah need not be not be too impressive.
•The sukkah may not be too large.
•The sukkah may not be any lower than what can be normally lived in.
•The roof or s’chach must be made of vegetation and the stars must be seen through.

The idea is to remind us of the fragility of the world that we occupy, a world that relies upon the sustenance and the benevolence of the Creator. This is why we add the following statement to the daily Amida between Sukkot and Passover; “Who makes the wind to blow and the rain descend”. It is wedged between two other affirmations in the prayers; “You resuscitate the dead and are able to save” and “Who sustains the living with loving kindness.” The placement creates the unambiguous suggestion that God’s provision of our agricultural needs that provide our daily sustenance is no less miraculous than the resurrection of the dead, and no less important than the care of our individual health. Therefore we are reminded that all that we are, all that we have and all that we need are in the hands of the one who created us.

This is not an absolute statement against materialism; Judaism is not a religion of asceticism. Instead our little sukkah just reminds us that God will care for our needs in much the same way that he meets the needs of our souls. Maimonides wrote, “The general purpose of the Torah is twofold the well-being of the body and the well-being of the soul. The well-being of the soul is ranked first, but the well-being of the body comes first.”

Lesson #3 – Relationships

On Sunday mourning I was exhausted from the preparation and duration of Yom Kippur. Though the idea of putting up a sukkah should have gotten me excited, it frankly didn’t. My mechanical skills only take me so far, and I could not remember how the sukkah kit went together. I was drinking coffee in my back yard hoping that help was on its way. First Ernest showed up, am member of the congregation who builds various and sundry stuff for a living. Then just as we were discussing how confusing the kit was, David rode up on his motorcycle. David is our cantor, and a very handy and organized guy as well. I really was not counting on him making it since he looked exhausted the night before. When he rode up though I knew the construction time was cut in by two thirds. Building a sukkah is one of those projects that can bring people together. For those of us who spend most of our time in a world that is more cerebral than digital, we are afforded few constructive moments that are not spent in front of a screen. What a great opportunity it is to be able to create something together, even if it is going to stand for a couple of weeks at best. Then came the decorators, mostly kids and moms who got to put the finishing touches on the sukkah. In the end it really is a ramshackle little sukkah, but it is our sukkah, built by our hands together in a cooperative effort.

Tonight we will take our first meal in it and together will create a new set of memories that will long outlast the sukkah. Friends will stop by and eat their meals in our sukkah during the week as well. It is a mitzvah to welcome others into the sukkah, according to the Jewish tradition of Ushpizin, when we host others in our sukkah it as though we host our patriarchs as honored guests, and we welcome Hashem himself. The Talmud says, “The Shechinah (the Divine Presence) comes upon us neither out of sadness nor our of raucous laughter…but out of the joy of mitzvah.” Perhaps that is why the prophet Zechariah predicted that in the last days all people would celebrate Sukkot. So what began with our ancestors in the wilderness remains in Jewish hands, lessons that we continue learn in little sukkot.

6 Responses to Lessons Learned From A Little Sukkah

  1. Henry Gutterman on September 24, 2010 at 2:04 am

    Dear Rabbi Paul.

    We have arrived at succot. This Holy week comes after the day of blowing of
    trumpets. My previous understanding is that trumpets represents messiahs return amoung other things. If this is correct then the feast of booths would picture glorious life in Gods Kingdom on earth. Your article emphasizes the current state of the human condition. Why not emphasize ressurected life in paradise? What is the connection between this world
    and the world to come in jewsih thought?

    • Rabbi Paul on September 24, 2010 at 2:46 pm

      Thanks Henry. There are so many questions packed in your query. First let me speak very briefly about the feast of trumpets or Yom Teruah as Rosh Hashanah is called in the scripture. The Torah does not tell us directly why this holiday exists. It is enough that we should be obedient. But it does seem to point to certain things.
      1) It creates a preparation period for the Day of Atonement.
      2) It is celebrated in our tradition as the birth date of the world.
      3) It has a sense of Royal Announcement.
      4) It sits within the continuity of the progressive Journey from Exodus (Passover) to Liberation (Sukkot)
      So on to the idea that it is announcing the Kingdom on Earth. Certainly there are elements of the final things in Sukkot.
      1) Zechariah 14 the haftarah for the shabbat of sukkot points to all people coming up to celebrate Sukkot when The LORD establishes His kingdom.
      2) The palm branches used in the lulav are often symbols of Royal entry. This symbol is used in Yeshua’s entry into Jerusalem.
      3) At the mount of transfiguration when the apostles saw the glorified Yeshua they felt compelled to build sukkot.
      But what is most important about the holiday of Sukkot is that we memorialize the journey to the final liberation. Like all of the holidays it comes year after year. The idea is that each year moves us closer to completion of the Divine plan. So we obey Hashem and commemorate these days each year allowing ourselves to be transformed in the present reality (Yom Hazeh) so that we might be part of the process of welcoming in the Age to Come (Yom Habbah).

      There are many more lessons to be learned along the way, I just wanted to muse on a few.

      • Henry Gutterman on September 24, 2010 at 7:46 pm

        Dear Rabbi

        Dear Rabbi Paul

        A couple of thoughts came to me concerning the feast of trumpets.
        In revelation Yeshua comes at the seventh trumpet. I thes 4 says
        that the Trumpet shall sound and the dead will be raised. We will then meet the Lord in the clouds This happens at messiahs return.

        The other thought is concerning the jewish belief of the birth of the world. Could it also refer to the birth of the entire rightous community will experince at Yeshua’s return to earth which will eventually lead to a renewed heaven and earth?

        • Rabbi Paul on September 24, 2010 at 8:04 pm

          I don’t think so Henry. The concept of Rosh Hashanah commemorating the birth of the world is a rabbinic midrash for the sake of giving value added to the Holiday. The concept helps us to remember that Hashem remembers us and that he sustains His creation. That is why the holiday is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance. I hardly think the sages thought so far as to include th return of Yeshua in the commemoration of the holiday. But if you wish to create your own midrash to import messianic meaning you can. Just so long as you remember that this kind of midrash is not meant to be literal historiography. Too often biblical literalists forget that and lose out on the greater meaning that we can gain from commemorations such as this.

          Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

  2. JC on September 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Rabbi, I want to thank you for these posts. I always make it a point to read and listen to them. They educate, encourage, and comfort me.

    Who are we that the Creator of the Universe takes such care over? I cannot understand or comprehend His desire to love and continually pursue us/me, an imperfect person/a stiff necked people, but I thank Him everyday. I am reminded that is isn’t about us, it is about Him.

    I thank you too for sharing your knowledge and inspiration, it means a great deal.

    • Rabbi Paul on September 24, 2010 at 7:24 pm

      Thanks so much. I really appreciate your encouragement. We all learn together.

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