Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Feeling safe in the sukkah

One of the main themes of Sukkot (or Sukkos, if you prefer) is of intentionally placing ourselves within a structure which makes us feel vulnerable, thereby reminding ourselves that the walls of our homes only give us an illusion of safety -- it is really G-d Who protects us. I wrote a column about this for The Jewish Chronicle, and present it here for your reading pleasure. (I even managed to make another reference to "The Fantasticks.")

Chag Sameach (happy holiday) to all!

It’s a funny thing about Sukkot. Just as the weather is getting cold, we Jews move outside for a week, eating our meals and sometimes sleeping in rickety structures with roofs made of tree branches or bamboo mats.

With variable fall temperatures, our days and nights in the sukkah may alternate from sweltering to bone-chilling. And there are plenty of other discomforts as well – insects, mud, damp chairs and pine needles in our soup.

With all of this, you’d think that we would dread Sukkot and wish for it to pass as quickly as possible. But, in fact, the opposite is true.

Traditionally, Sukkot is referred to as Zman Simchatenu – the time of our rejoicing. Defying all reason, Sukkot is a time of intense joy. It is a time for warming our hands with a cup of tea, listening to the sounds of nature and breathing in the crisp night air. In short, it is a time for appreciating the simpler things in life.

Of course, it is one of the great ironies in life that the simplest things are what make us happiest. In America, most of us Jews are blessed with sturdy roofs, plush mattresses and central heating, and none of those comforts elicit joy in the way that a hut with canvas walls and a roof made of corn husks can.

In a way, Sukkot is a bit like playing house, which is perhaps why kids love it so much. Building and decorating a sukkah is like building a tree house, where all rules of construction and decorum can be bent or discarded. The decorations can be garish, the furniture doesn’t match, and nobody minds if you spill your drink.

In its simplicity, the sukkah is a blank slate upon which we can impose our imaginations. The surroundings may be unimpressive, but we can imagine that they are as glorious and ornate as palace walls.

The idea of a temporary structure – of creating a dwelling place amid the outdoors – is one that appeals to both our childish and romantic notions.

To borrow an example from a non-Jewish source, in the musical, “The Fantasticks,” a prototypical boy and girl are reveling in a romantic stroll as a storm approaches. They are too far from home to seek shelter, but the boy assures the girl that he will build a temporary home to protect them. He sings, dispelling her fears:

“We’ll find four limbs of a tree.
We’ll build four walls and a floor.
We’ll bind it over with leaves.
And run inside to stay.”

Of course, any of us who have been inside a sukkah as rain fell knows that the schach (sukkah covering) is not enough to keep out the rain. While they may have been naïve, the characters in “The Fantasticks” probably knew this too. Their impromptu structure was more about creating a sense of protection than of actually keeping them dry.

So too with Sukkot, when we reflect upon God’s protection of the ancient Israelites as they dwelled amid fragile tabernacles in the desert – and of God’s continued protection of us today, in spite of our brick walls and slate roofs. We know the sukkah won’t protect us from storms and tempests, but beyond the flimsy walls, we know that God is there, watching over us.