When the sukkah fell down: Fragility, joy and the ultimate meaning of Sukkot
By choosing life, with its impermanence and imperfection, we relish in all of it.
First, it was the old, wooden one. Then the PVC pipe and tarp-draped one. Then it was the pop-up one. It was inevitable - at least it seemed that way - that every year, come rain or shine, there would be a “sukkah incident.” You know what I am talking about – the schach (hole filled roof) being blown away by a windstorm or the walls being cracked as they were weighted down by early snow, or an infestation of bees because of a bizarrely early autumn heat wave.
The most memorable disaster in my family was the year of the PVC sukkah. We had finally - and defiantly - gotten rid of the old, heavy, wooden-board sukkah. Our handyman created a lightweight, easy-to-put-together sukkah, made of PVC (plumbing) pipes and tarp for our construction-challenged parents. One night on the intermediate days of the holiday, there was a rainstorm. The next morning, we all woke up to find our entire PVC-pipe-and-tarp sukkah had been lifted in the air, moved across the yard 30 feet away, and completely blown off the patio where we had sat in it for the first two days of the holiday. The sukkah, a symbol of impermanence and fragility, had become more than a symbol; it had become its message in a stark, clear, real-life circumstance.
Sukkot is a holiday of duality. It is both a rejoicing in the bounty of the harvest, giving us one of its names “Z’man Simchateinu” (the Season of Our Rejoicing) and at the same time reminds us of the fragility of our lives in the world as we step outside the comforts, safety and security of our homes to dwell in the sukkah for seven days. In America, Sukkot comes just as the evening chill of autumn takes hold. We are aware of shorter days and the impending onset of winter. We decorate our sukkahs with artwork, gourds and fruit, bringing in symbolic stability to pretend the sukkahs are strong, all the while the stars shine through the hole-ridden roof and the wind blows through porous walls.
Our lives are not much different: we are surrounded by abundance, but we often take the bounty for granted; and we feel safe and secure, but, like our wind-blown sukkahs, fragility is much more often our reality. We create routines, establish relationships and get comfortable by establishing lives that we hope are permanent and solid. But, each year, our sukkahs remind us that lives can be overturned in an instant – with the loss of a job, the tragedy of an illness in a family member, or a relationship unexpectedly damaged, in a moment, everything can change.
Why are both messages - fragility and joy - at our bounty? Perhaps because they are inextricably linked. Our fragility reminds us to always be joyful at the gifts in our lives - even when we struggle with realities that are uncertain or frightening. The gifts of our bounty, and the awareness of our fragility, together call us to act as partners in bring more holiness to our lives and our world.
The holiday of Sukkot teaches us more than to simply “recognize life’s fragility.” It calls upon us to embrace the uncertainty of life by not simply living in a temporary structure under a porous roof – day in and day out, rain or shine – but celebrating in it, and thus thriving in it. As in life, we are asked to not simply live, but to “choose life.” In so doing, to relish all of life: its celebratory moments and its temporary nature. The Torah commands:
Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress. And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates. Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose; because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
In order to truly relish our lives, we must joyfully embrace its impermanence. We cannot just get through the holiday, we must do so with an unending joy; by doing so we cultivate a gratitude for the gifts in our lives, even when our lives are imperfect, challenging and fragile.
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com