Parshat Chol Hamoed Succot 2018
A rich traditional Jew moves into a fancy apartment on a plush avenue in New York City, and just before Succoth he builds a succah on his balcony. His neighbors are scandalized and when he refuses to dismantle it they bring him to court, the day before the holiday. The judge, a Jew, looks at the litigants and says, “While I understand your right to express your religious feelings I also understand your right to maintain a certain standard for your neighborhood. Therefore, I rule that you, sir, have 9 days to remove that structure from your balcony.”
Succoth is a strange holiday in some ways. Its main symbol, the succah, could easily serve as the leitmotif for Jewish history. Basically it’s a temporary and fragile structure that is sufficient when the weather is good but barely habitable when the rains and snow come. And when the strong winds blow through town, forget it!
Isn’t that the experience of our people? We set up our homes and organize our lives in a new place and at first all goes well. We are as comfortable as one can be in a temporary hut with the sun shining and the succah to provide the amenities needed for a hospitable climate.
Then the rains come, first a few limitations, then a pogrom, perhaps an inquisition or a holocaust, and life in the succah doesn’t look so pleasant any more. And when the strong winds blow, there goes your succah, there goes your home, and there you go seeking another refuge.
So one might think that Succoth should not be a happy holiday. And, indeed, we read the depressing book of Ecclesiastes on the holiday. Yet, the Torah specifically calls it “the time of our rejoicing,” and tells us that we are to be happy in this holiday. The question is – why?
Before we address that question, it is interesting to note that Herbert Levine, a professor of Jewish spirituality, sees the sukkah as symbolizing an ambivalent relationship to a hidden but sheltering God. For example, Amos, speaks of God rebuilding the fallen sukkah of David. Isaiah compares bat-tzion, the forlorn Jerusalem, to an abandoned booth (sukkah) in the vineyard,” and elsewhere as a refuge from the rain and the elements.
Perhaps we can find an answer to the question of why we should be happy on Succoth in the juxtaposition of Succoth and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We have just spent hours and hours in shul, searching our souls and mulling over the possible calamities that could face us in the new year. We say “who will live and who will die” and we list the myriad ways in which our lives can end. We enumerate our sins and the constant repetition eventually penetrates our thoughts: we are not as good as we perhaps could be. Will we pay for it? Heavy stuff.
Then it’s over. Along comes Succoth. We are outside. We are in what can be one of the loveliest seasons of the year with cool evenings, beautiful sunsets, warm but not scorching days (at least not until climate change). And most important – we are alive. The heavy stuff is behind us. Let the festivities begin.
When they do begin, and we meet with our family and friends, and we eat, drink and make merry, we can begin to view the succah and its holiday a bit more positively. Yes, that hut is rickety. Yes, it has to be erected and dismantled time and again in keeping with the rhythm of the winds of fortune as we pull up our roots and move elsewhere. Yes, it means starting again, and again, sometimes from scratch, the way our ancestors did at least 42 times in the desert between Egypt and Canaan.
But then remember. We actually did it. Over the centuries we moved from place to place. While those who found our presence unpleasant and did their utmost to make our lives miserable have come down a rung or two, or remain only as names in the history books, we are still here. Sure, we still have to go the succah route from time to time, even today, but we also have some staying power, enough even to patch together an eyesore on the plushest avenue in New York City.
Succoth comes just before winter hibernation sets in, after the grains and produce have been gathered and a needed rest is around the corner. We have time to look back and forward. If the year wasn’t so great, at least it’s over and we can begin to dream of a better new year. If the year was great, we can sit back and sigh with pleasure, and hope that next year will be as good.
Under it all, however, we realize that our lives are truly fragile. The events around us show how easily joy can be erased by tragedy. Not only in our Yom Kippur liturgy but in real life. And so we can take this opportunity of Succoth to give thanks for what we have and also to work to ensure that we contribute to the good side of the ledger, through random acts of goodness and nurturing the ties with those close and dear to us.