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Sukkot encourages to understand the temporal quality of a physical life
It’s true that our pumpkin patches are staged and the temperature only dipped slightly, but we cannot deny that we are in autumn. We have just celebrated Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, which is further proof and now the highlight of Jewish autumn is upon us: Sukkot. While the High Holy Days acknowledge the New Year and our role in seeking atonement, it is the harvest festival of Sukkot, also called Chag ha-asif (the harvest festival), which celebrates the season. In addition, we cannot deny that we in Florida have the most authentic s’chach — palm fronds for the top of the sukkah.
Although our sukkot look great, (the word sukkah is singular for booth or hut. Sukkot are booths and the name of the holiday), the holiday occurring during the rainy/hurricane season can be problematic. There are years when I can eat many meals in my sukkah and the decorations stay intact. There are also years in which we only eat a couple of meals in the sukkah and my s’chach droops from the water. There have been a few times when the entire community, including the synagogues, have had to dismantle our sukkot due to hurricane force winds. The mitzvah is to live in a sukkah for seven days with an exclusion policy for very inclement weather.
A sukkah cannot protect us from the elements; it is its most significant feature. As in ancient times, it can offer some shade to the farmer by day who is harvesting his field and a bit of coverage at night while he is guarding his field. The Torah says we live in sukkot as a remembrance of the exodus: “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). Technically, the Israelites probably lived in tents, the Torah even says so, but the sukkah in addition to its agricultural connection and its stated historical connection has for us, even today a spiritual connection.
What is tradition trying to teach us when it says we must live in a temporary dwelling? Aren’t dwell and temporary contradictory? A sukkah must be built with enough branches on the roof to block the sun — like a dwelling — but not too much to block the stars or rain — so temporary. If the walls are taller than 20 cubits (about 30 feet) it’s not a sukkah — not a “temporary” structure; but if they’re too flimsy to withstand an average wind, it’s also disqualified — not a “dwelling.” The sukkah exemplifies homelessness and bounty at the same time. Most of the time, we are in our homes and enjoying all that we have. When things go well we believe this condition is permanent.
At Sukkot we are encouraged to understand the temporal quality of a physical life. This is not to impart fear but rather awe, gratitude and urgency to live our lives well through mitzvot. The holiday is very physical — waving a lulav, building the sukkah. Yet, the etrog and branches whither, the sukkah won’t even protect us from a typical Miami rain. We get out of the permanent dwelling to experience the impermanence of nature of which we are a part but so far removed. We are grateful in our celebration of this autumn harvest festival and as we celebrate we are also keenly aware that some enjoy abundance and others lack the security of a permanent dwelling and bountiful food.
Due to Hurricane Irma many of us understand first-hand the difference between a permanent and temporary dwelling. We longed to be back in a fully functioning home. This year, more than in recent years we have increased our awareness; even what we believe to be permanent and sure may not be. Our increased awareness and compassion leads us to gratitude. We are grateful in our celebration of this autumn harvest festival and as we celebrate we are also keenly aware that some enjoy abundance and others lack the security of a permanent dwelling and bountiful food.
Five days after Yom Kippur we begin Sukkot. We have atoned for our sins and we begin a fresh start. May our first mitzvot be to celebrate Sukkot, and commit ourselves to ensuring that others too may enjoy the security of food and a permanent dwelling.