Our congregation's sukah was blown down by the wind last year, just after the beginning of the Sukot festival. The cause was one of those freak storms that tear up trees, down power lines, and destroy sukot. When we found our sukah the next morning, there was nothing to be done: It was out of commission for the remainder of the holiday.
Trying to celebrate the rest of Sukot without the sukah felt very strange. Most practices that accompany Jewish holidays can be observed either at home or in the synagogue, but Sukot without a sukah is just not the same. The Torah portion that we read for the morning of Sukot echoes the idea that Sukot somehow stands apart from the other holidays of the Jewish year.
Those are the set times of Adonai, which you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to God-burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it. . . . Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of Adonai [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. . . . You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I Adonai your God.
Leviticus 23:37,39, 42-43
Verse 37 marks the completion of the festival calendar detailed in the preceding verses. Sukot is mentioned as the "Feast of Booths" (Leviticus 23:34), but our obligations to build and dwell in sukot and to "take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook" (Leviticus 23:40) for the lulav and etrog seem to have been added to this section by a later source, according to Plaut. Yet if we examine the text carefully, it is possible to see that this addition makes a great deal of sense.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, writes, "Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time." (p. 8) The rest of the festival calendar that appears in chapter 23 seems to bear out this idea. Listed are holidays by which we, as Jews, celebrate time, setting these days apart for the celebration and sharing of our heritage and existence. By building our sukah and dwelling in it, however, we seem to be sanctifying space rather than time. Without the opportunity to sit, eat, or even sleep in the sukah, our observance of Sukot feels a bit empty. Without having the structure, the specific location, the holiday feels incomplete. But if we remember that our sukah is meant to be a temporary structure, one that can be easily knocked over by the wind, we are reminded that what is most enduring about Judaism is our celebration of time-things that last, instead of the things that we create. By designating the Book of Ecclesiastes for reading and study on the days of Sukot, our rabbis showed that they understood this idea. Ecclesiastes, like our sukah, reminds us that life is fragile and constantly changing.
Although it seemed strange to celebrate the festival of Sukot without our sukah, in a sense, the blown-over sukah was an appropriate reminder of this festival. Life is fragile and delicate, just like our sukah. Therefore, we must make the most of the time that we are given and sanctify every day.
Suggested Reading: Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951
Brian Michelson is the rabbi of Temple Oheb Sholom in Reading, PA.
My kids love Sukot.That's not bad for a three- and a five-year-old.For small children, Sukot is the ultimate in "playing house."We encourage them to decorate the sukah, and in many ways they are the hosts. We even came up with our own little song last year. You will know the tune.
My sukah it has three walls
Three walls has my sukah.
If it did not have three unstable, poorly built,
could-be-blown over-by-the-big-bad-wolf walls,
It would not be my sukah.
(Read about what happened to our sukah last year in Rabbi Michelson's commentary.)
But what do we teach our children about this Torah portion and this holiday? We tell them that we build booths to remember. My children are too young to understand this concept yet: They just like the idea of playing and eating and resting in our sukah.Then I realized what was happening:My children were not just "playing house," they were "playing home."
Once when I was sitting down at home, I started looking around at the items on my walls:Our wedding announcement in needlepoint, our ketubah, and, of course, pictures of our family and friends.We also have a beautiful print with the words V'shinantam levanecha, "You shall teach them to your children."On Sukot, what can we teach our children about making a home? Is a home temporary or permanent? For my children, there is not much of a difference: A home is where they and the people they most love live. When we travel, we, as my daughter says, "go home to the hotel. "The next night, we "go home to a different hotel."
Children, however, do know how to mark time. They know how many days until school is over (while parents know the number of days until school begins again).They know how many days until vacation or their birthdays or Hanukkah. In many ways, they mark the time in their lives in a Jewish way,much like our Torah portion tells us to do: "Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions."(Leviticus 23:1-2) As we get older, we don't mark time the way we did when we were younger: We just lament its passing so quickly. We know when different people's birthdays fall, but we don't celebrate those days as enthusiastically unless the occasion is our children's birthday or a "biggie," and even then, most of us don't want to make them into a big deal.After all, what's so special about turning thirty-seven?
Maybe instead of me teaching my children, it is time to let them teach me. It is time to start celebrating with gusto the set times in our lives and to see them as sacred occasions. It is time to build a sukah with our children and join them in making homemade decorations. It is time to start counting the number of days until the next birthday in the family or even the seventy days until Hanukkah.
Holly Michelson is the religious school administrator at Congregation Oheb Sholom in Reading, PA.
Sukkot Day 1, Leviticus 23:33‒44
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 930‒931; Revised Edition, pp. 827‒828
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 736‒737