Parshat Chol Hamoed Succoth 2017
The succah is an ambiguous symbol, if we think about it and the holiday it represents. It and the holiday are full of contradictions. We are told to be happy on this holiday. And also to sit in the succah, to remember the deluxe accommodations God reserved for us with during our 40 years of wandering in the desert. Forget Hilton or Sheraton, just these flimsy structures.
And they have to be flimsy. No permanence is allowed. I heard a story this week about a religious Jew stationed here with the American ambassador. Workers from the embassy came to erect his succah in his yard. They did an admirable job, nailing the boards together, which is a no-no, and he spent hours removing all of the nails. (That’s like the rabbi who brought his tallit to be dry cleaned by someone from the Far East. When the rabbi returned the cleaner proudly showed him that he had untied all of the knots on those strings, and ironed them until they were straight.)
But we were talking succah. Is it really such a symbol of weakness? On the one hand, it is a stark contrast to the settled life of Egypt, where even if the Israelites were downtrodden, they had permanent homes to live in. And the succah is certainly as far from the pyramids, the symbol of permanence par excellance, that one can get. On the other hand, you can say, the succah opened the option of setting up home wherever the people wanted or happened to be.
You might say that’s not a very strong argument. They made their homes along the way because they didn’t have anything permanent. But there is a positive side. Their succah provided all the amenities they needed at the time, because their existence was one of flux, not of permanence. Imagine if they had built homes in the desert. We wouldn’t have arrived here and our history would be different.
If one wanted to look at the succah prophetically, or cynically, one could say that this insistence on living in deconstructable huts was an omen for our subsequent history. We had to learn how to be able to pack up our bags and get out at a moment’s notice. Those who could and did, were often saved by their alacrity.
Here’s a literary example that illustrates this skill thousands of years afterwards. Back in 1948 or so, playwright Arthur Miller wrote a short story called Mount St. Angelo. After demobilization following WWII, Bernstein the Jew was traveling with his Italian friend Vinny Amato through Italy where Vinny wanted to find his roots. His name was the key that opened every door. Bernstein was getting more and more depressed. He had no one. His parents had emigrated from Vienna to the US before the war. The rest of his family had been wiped out. He was rootless.
Finally, they arrive in Mount St. Angelo, a sleepy town atop a steep dusty cliff. It’s Friday afternoon. They go into a restaurant, and a man in a dark dusty jacket and a hat comes in and unties his bundle. Bernstein perks up and says, Vinny, I think that man’s a Jew. Ask him.
They conduct a three-way conversation and it comes out that this Italian, Mauro di Benedetto (Morris of the Blessed – i.e., Moshe) comes in for a round bread every Friday afternoon. He carefully packs it in his bundle and, he relates, he must arrive home before sundown. That’s what his father did too.
What caught Bernstein’s attention was Mauro’s skill with cord and tying. He explains to Vinny that no one knows the value of cord and how to tie and untie like a Jew. We always have to be ready to leave. And this gives him hope because even in his personal rootlessness – he has roots all over.
Think about it for a moment. Just as the Israelites built succot in each of their 42 stops on their 40 year journey, they also built a Tabernacle, a portable temple which could be dismantled and transported from place to place.
And it turns out this skill was necessary. In 721 BCE the Assyrians dispersed the 10 tribes of Israel. In 586BCE the Babylonians took the remaining two. Name a powerful country the Jews were not kicked out of. Being prepared to move is part of our DNA.
But even with all this movement, there is the reassurance that we will always find a succah. Today, it could be the local Chabad house in the middle of nowhere. Or a Jew who turns up where you’re least likely to expect him.
You could say that in this respect, Succoth turn impermanence into a positive value.
Similarly, the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which is read on Shabbat Chol Hamoed, is a never-ending contradiction and source of anguish. For nine or ten chapters it insists that all is as vapid as the mist of exhaled breath, what we translate as vanity. It bemoans and denigrates all of our efforts – including learning and wisdom – because when all is said and done, we end up in the same place.
And then, a ray of light. Carpe diem – seize the day. Enjoy nature and what we have around us and we are paying tribute to the God who made it all. Or is it just capitulation.
Putting it all together, we can say that Succoth has something for everyone. It has joy, food, music, celebration. It also has a feeling of evanescence, of transience, like life itself, and the falling leaves outside and the succah that is here today, and gone next week.