For years I had a sukkah. And for years I had a home. Then a bunch of stuff happened and the walls came tumbling down. After all the trials and tribulations of a story I’m not going to repeat in this blog, I sort of have a little home again. I’m still calming down after the storm. But I don’t have a sukkah. For now that’s all good.
For years I had a sukkah…. literally, a booth; whose plural is “Sukkot”: the same name of the festival we Jews are celebrating now. A sukkah is a four-sided dwelling that is not really a dwelling, in that it is supposed to be temporary. At least one of the four sides must be open to let in not only guests, but the wind; whether it be zephyr, gust or gale. The roof is made of “skakh” (please swallow whatever you’re eating or drinking before you try to say that word) with purposeful spaces to let in the rain, the snow (yes, I suppose in some regions) and an unobstructed view of the stars. We build them at this time of year to remind us of our ancestors in the desert; how they spent forty years living in such portable, deconstructible huts as these.
For a few years during my childhood, my father built a sukkah on the patio each season. He did it all by himself with hammer, wood and nails. I would have helped but I wasn’t allowed; God forbid I should have contracted a splinter or pounded a thumb or worse. I was protected from the elements even before the sukkah, which is designed NOT to protect us, was completed. My mother and I did decorate the inside of the sukkah with fruit; both real and artistically paper-replica’d. These symbols represent the fall harvest. Some people call Sukkot the Jewish Thanksgiving. I used to be one of those people. How silly of me.
We’re commanded to eat in the sukkah, and we are permitted (though not commanded, despite what some say) to sleep there as well. The Talmud asks us to determine, if rain should fall during your outdoor meal, when it is permissible to take up your meal and continue eating inside your house? The Talmud then answers (as it always does): When the amount of rain your soup bowl becomes greater than the amount of soup in your bowl, then you may go inside and finish the meal in total shelter.
I once had a sukkah, but I also visited, and ate, in the sukkah of the synagogue wherever I happened to be praying or working. At home you enjoy your personal sukkah with your immediate family; in shul you experience the tabernacles with your bigger, congregational family and its portions thereof. As a cantor I often led religious school groups in the congregational sukkah, which was constructed very quickly by the Men’s Club or Brotherhood the day after Yom Kippur in a kind of barn-raising miracle. We shook the lulav and etrog in all directions – remember the mnemonic, “ESau Went NUDe”…. east, south, west, north, up and down…. in six directions to signify that God is everywhere.
My sukkah, the one I once had, was made of steel and screws; not wood and nails. Apparently it was made in Chapel Hill, but I both acquired it and let it go before I moved there. It came in a kit with instructions. I could never raise it myself; my kids’ father did it for years, even after we separated. Its walls were brightly designed shower curtains; these let in the wind and the rain but made a bold statement about waterproofing and creativity. The sukkah was too big to move with me when I relocated, so I gave it to some very dear friends who took it away in their Rav4. I hope they are enjoying it as much as I did while it was mine.
I once had a sukkah; a temporary dwelling attached to a permanent one. What does that mean, anyway? What is the least religious significance of having two homes side by side when one is obviously impermeable and the other is meant to tip over after a week of use? Conspicuous consumption, really, See, folks? We can pretend we’re indigent when you can plainly see we have a sturdy Framingham, or a mocked-up McMansion. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re fooling you into fooling ourselves for at least a week. Have you seen the excuse for a sukkah that the fine hotels in Jerusalem offer the moneyed tourist at this time of year? Frankly, in this day and age, it mocks the homeless, and there’s nothing holy about that:
Go on. Just try to tell me this is even remotely like our ancestors’ desert experience. I’m already laughing at you, not with you. You might as well compare Tara to a slave barracks. Or the Pharaoh’s palace to…. yes, a slave barracks.
The size of your dwelling doesn’t matter. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, the book we also read at this time of year, it can disappear or disintegrate overnight. My dream house, my own folly in which I’d hoped to raise my children, is now no more. That home so loved by us and by two previous owners was swept away in a tsunami of non-payment and in the folly of a flood brought on by bad advice and a frozen winter water pipe.
This year I’m humbled but safe. The worst of life’s storm is behind me. I rent a modest townhouse in the friendliest little village in North Carolina. The shade of massive oaks and sturdily graceful loblollies protects me, yet at this time of year I hear the smack of acorns and pine cones as they skydive against my roof and my walls. I once had a sukkah with walls of bright color and design; now I have the sound of precipitating inedible tree fruit 24 hours a day and it makes me smile. My apartment may be permanent; it may be temporary; I don’t have to know right now which. But it’s home.