By Cantor Sheri Allen
I remember that morning well, even though it was about 15 years ago. I woke up to the sound of wind, and an unusual creaking sound coming from the backyard. And then I heard the crash. And I just knew. Our sukkah had blown down. And we were supposed to have my son Jeremy’s whole day-school class over for lunch in the sukkah. Panic set in. Fortunately, after a desperate call to our trusty handyman Martin, our sukkah was saved, and lunch took place as planned.
But our ancestors, trekking through the wilderness for 40 years and completely dependent on G-d’s grace, certainly weren’t able to fix a weather-worn sukkah with a simple phone call. And just as a broken computer, dishwasher or air conditioning unit makes you realize how good you really have it most of the time, there’s nothing like living in a sukkah for a week to make you truly appreciate the comforts of home.
And I think that’s exactly what G-d intended when G-d commanded us to live in one, stating, “You shall live in huts seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in huts, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in huts when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your G-d” (Leviticus 23:42, 43). We are also commanded (yes, commanded) to rejoice during the holiday.
Having just completed a monthlong contemplative process of cheshbon ha nefesh (soul-searching) in Elul and the High Holy Days, we are grateful to G-d for granting us forgiveness, and for the ability to start another year anew. Our ancestors were also grateful for the bounty of another harvest before the winter. Thus, Sukkot (as well as the other two pilgrimage festivals of the year: Pesach and Shavuot) incorporates both an historical element — remembering the 40 years of wandering when our ancestors lived in booths — and an agricultural element — celebrating the ingathering of the crops. With the difficult days of judgment and self-examination (and for our ancestors, physical hard labor) finally over, we are now free to relax, rejoice and eat lots of stuffed cabbage.
Well, not so fast, G-d seems to be telling us. For into every sukkah, a little rain must fall, as it usually does for at least one day of the holiday each year. Sometimes it’s extremely hot. Or, if you live up North, pretty darn cold. And then there’s the mosquitoes. It’s wonderful to be communing with nature, but not when bugs get into the brisket. So why would we be commanded to rejoice and be happy in less than completely desirable circumstances? We are indeed exempt from eating or dwelling in the sukkah if it’s raining, or if conditions would make it impossible for us to enjoy our Sukkot experience. But downpours aside, we still have to put up with some of Mother Nature’s inconveniences for a week. What can we glean from it?
Rabbi David Golinkin, referring to the Rashbam, a French medieval commentator and one of Rashi’s grandsons, explains, “The sukkah is a lesson in humility. It comes to prevent a swelled head. G-d commanded us to sit in the sukkah precisely at the harvest season when we are congratulating ourselves for our successful harvest and our fancy homes. The humble sukkah reminds us — everything you eat and everything you own comes from G-d.” In other words, too much comfort, too much celebration, can lead to complacency, laziness or a case of extreme ungratefulness.
Perhaps G-d is reminding us that we can appreciate the blessings in our lives only when we are most vulnerable, and when we stop for a moment to think about what we would do without them.
Besides being a good lesson in vulnerability, Sukkot also reminds us that impermanence is also part of the human condition. Our ancestors were wanderers. And, throughout history, when we finally felt that we were settled, comfortable, accepted and on our way to prosperity, whether in Egypt, Israel, Germany or Russia, we were forced to uproot our lives time and time again. And we learned that our home is wherever we are, for that is where G-d will be. And despite all the challenges and tragedies our people faced and still face, we are still here.
Sukkot reminds us that despite being vulnerable, we are also strong, and, with G-d’s help, we have the ability to adapt, to grow and to survive. An important reminder for each of us. The danger comes when we refuse to move on, or get mired in the complacency of thinking that things will get done for us. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a trusty handyman, but maybe that’s a good thing. It reminds us that we need to be responsible for rebuilding the walls of our sukkot, and of our community, together, so that G-d will dwell among us.
Sheri Allen is the Cantor of Makom Shelanu Congregation, a new inclusive, affirming prayer community in Fort Worth.