As the High Holy Days come into view over the horizon, this year my mind is on the sometimes forgotten fall holiday that sneaks in behind: Sukkot (or Succoth, if you hanker for old-timey transliterations that won’t upset your computer’s spell checker). There is a very straightforward reason for this: as a new homeowner, I’m going to need to buy/build a new sukkah this year!
Let’s take a moment to think about what a sukkah is and does. Whether in your yard or on your balcony or on the grounds of a communal building, a sukkah takes a piece of empty space, nothing but open air, and transforms it for a week into a sacred domain. Even before the holiday is fully complete*, the sukkah’s purpose is complete and – assuming it made it to the end – it transforms into nothing but an incompletely shady box of outside air. (*Sh’mini Atzeret is simultaneously the last day of Sukkot and a holiday of its own; it is separate and a part. The mitzvah of living/sitting in the sukkah no longer applies, though it is a custom outside of Israel to still recite kiddush in the sukkah on the first day of Sh’mini Atzeret. We do this because it is also the second day of the seventh day of Sukkot – which is Hoshana Rabbah – but we don’t use the sukkah at all on Simchat Torah, though it is actually the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret. Now, try to explain that to your non-Jewish friends!)
There are a number of valuable lessons in the simple idea of the sukkah. First, we learn that sanctity is what we make of it. An old person is nothing more to nature than a person who is old, but when we treat them with deference and respect for their experience, they are an elder. Saturday is just another day of the week, unless we make it Shabbat. Aside from our health and safety, almost everything we hold dear is of value because of the meaning we create and invest it with, not because of anything intrinsic to it. The corollary of this is that we have the power to decide what people and things we hold sacred, what we regard as ordinary, and what we revile. Let us choose wisely.
Our sukkah teaches us not to judge by appearances. It’s not just that what was an open patch of grass or concrete or deck or patio one week is a sacred enclosure the next, but also that a sukkah is typically not much to look at. Some do dress them up quite a bit, but most people’s sukkah looks – to the unfamiliar observer – shoddy, ramshackle, and unfinished. No one is ever shocked if their sukkah blows over or falls apart in a strong wind. It’s not built to last. All true. And yet, it is in our sukkah that we receive the Ushpizin (the seven figures from biblical history who are mystical guests in our sukkah each night); it is our time in the sukkah that we describe in our prayers as “the time of our joy;” it is our fragile sukkah that reminds us of that time period in our history when our ancestors, newly freed from slavery, wandered the desert without a visible source of water, food, or shelter, while God, the “Source of Living Waters,” who “feeds all,” our “high tower and sheltering rock” miraculously provided for all their needs.
The sukkah is a reminder too that perfection is not always the right goal. In fact, the sukkah is invalid if it is too complete. We must be able to see the sky through the s’khakh which forms its roof. Although it is permissible to build a sukkah with four walls and a doorway, a sukkah is valid with as few as two complete walls and a partial third. Although the sukkah should be strong enough to hold up to typical winds, it need not be strong enough to survive storms. When the weather is unpleasant, we do not try to weatherproof our sukkah, we go inside. It’s quite healthy for us to realize that perfection is often impossible; God expects only that we do our best, and we should be satisfied with that standard too. The sukkah’s very imperfection is what makes it a holy space, while it’s more perfectly constructed neighbor is a tool shed.
What lessons can you draw from the sukkah, the holy, holey, wholly unique hut at the center of Sukkot?