When contemplating the festival of Sukkot, we are confronted with a remarkable paradox. The sukkah symbolizes our life span in the world. For what is it but a frail structure in which we must dwell for seven days? Many commentators remind us that these seven days represent the average duration of man’s life, which is about seventy years. This was stated by King David when he wrote: “The days of our years are seventy years, and with strength eighty years” (1). Indeed, under favorable circumstances, we may prolong our stay in this world into our eighth day, which is symbolized by Shemini Atzeret (a separate festival immediately following the seven days of Sukkot).
How frail our life is! Not only short, but also unreliable. As long as we live under favorable and healthy circumstances, life is a pleasant experience and, just like the sukkah, it seems to protect us and make us feel safe. But as soon as life brings serious problems, or seems to turn against us, we realize how little protection it really does offer and how unstable our existence actually is. Like the sukkah, life is far less secure than we imagine.
It is therefore perplexing that the festival of Sukkot is considered to be the highlight of joy and happiness. Speaking specifically of Sukkot, the Torah states: “And you shall rejoice on your festival” (2). This means that we should experience the most exalted form of happiness as we dwell in a structure that emphasizes our lack of security.
In fact, Jewish law makes it abundantly clear that the sukkah must be built in such a way that makes it unable to stand up against a strong wind, that its roof will leak when it rains, and that it must contain more shadow than sunlight.
These conditions should theoretically make us feel distressed, since the sukkah seems to represent the vulnerability of man. So why command us to be joyful precisely at a time when we are confronted with all that can go wrong in life?
Here, another question comes to mind. Since the sukkah teaches us about life’s handicaps, we would expect Jewish law to require that its interior reflect a similar message. The sukkah should be empty of anything that provides comfort. It should contain nothing more than a few broken chairs, an old table and some meager cutlery with which to eat one’s dry bread.
Surprisingly, we find the contrary in Jewish law, which stipulates that the sukkah’s interior must reflect an optimistic lifestyle. Its frail walls should be adorned with beautiful art, paintings and other decorations. The leaking roof, made from leaves or reeds, should look attractive by having colorful fruits hanging from it. We are required to bring our best furniture into the sukkah, if possible to place a carpet on the ground, and have nice curtains hanging from its windows. We are to eat from the most beautiful plates and use our best cutlery. Meals should include savory delicacies, making them more elaborate than usual; and singing should accompany the meals. All of this seems to reflect a feeling that this world is a most pleasant place, made for our enjoyment and recreation!
So why sit in a weather-beaten hut?
The message could not be any clearer. No matter how powerfully the outside walls and the leaking roof reveal our vulnerability and uncertainty, inside these walls we need to make our life as attractive as possible and enjoy its great benefits and blessings.
This should not be lost on us. Instead of becoming depressed and losing faith in our lives when major tragedies take place, or when hearing the ongoing calls for the destruction of Israel, we should continue to approach life on the optimistic note that is conveyed to us by the beautiful interior of the sukkah.
True, the growing phenomena of Iran’s threats, global anti-Semitism and the de-legitimization of Israel; the many earthquakes, floods, and horrific attacks on our fellow humans (even in countries that believed they could provide their citizens with great security); all these prove how vulnerable we really are and how shaken are the outer walls of our “sukkah”! But none of this should hold us back from enjoying life as much as possible.
To be happy when all is well is fairly easy. But to be fully aware of the dangers surrounding us, while simultaneously continuing our lives “with song and harp” — that is what makes humans great and proud.
We would do well to discourage people from speculating about “the end of days,” or reading kabbalistic and other sources informing us that the messianic days are very close and that the wars preceding the coming of the Mashiach are imminent. There is no way of knowing. Just as in the days of Shabbetai Tzvi, such speculations, however tempting, could cause a strong backlash and inflict great damage. Instead, we should keep our feet firmly planted on the ground and make sure we live up to our moral and religious obligations.
The ongoing attacks by terrorist organizations on people everywhere should encourage all of us to unite and display more sensitivity to each other’s needs. Jew and gentile alike should build strong family ties and create solid and pleasant homes, just as in the case of the sukkah. People should be inspired to go to synagogue and church, creating cohesive communities, because these are among the most important “decorations” in our lifelong sukkah.
Indeed, the walls of our worldly sukkah may be shaking, but let us not forget that we have an obligation to decorate its interior.
1) Tehillim 90:10.
2) Devarim 16:14.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
1) Since early times, sculpture and painting has included the idea of the transience of life through the incorporation of memento mori – subtle or less subtle reminders of death in the shape of skulls, drooping flowers, and the like. A famous example is Holbein’s The Ambassadors. How is memento mori in art similar to and different from the sukkah? Why does the Christian-inspired memento mori encourage austerity and asceticism while the Jewish festival of Sukkot encourages joy?
2) The prophet Yeshayahu (22:13) castigated the people for saying, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die” in the face of the destruction of the Temple and God’s decree that the people should fast and mourn. When is it proper to be joyous in the face of disaster, and when is it proper to see disaster as a call for repentance and mourning?
3) Under normal circumstances, people hide their vulnerability, struggles, and pain within the four walls of their homes. On Sukkot, we are revealed as vulnerable not only to ourselves but to our entire community. Everyone hears everyone else in their flimsy sukkot, and many engage in the practice of “sukkah hopping” – visiting one another in our sukkot. Could part of the joy of Sukkot be the realization that we are not alone in our vulnerability and transience? Could part of the message be that we should be quicker to share our struggles and vulnerability with our friends and neighbors rather than hide these things in our homes?
4) We read the book of Kohelet on Sukkot. Kohelet asks the questions that are embodied in the sukkah itself: What is the purpose of life if all is transient? What is the purpose of building great edifices if they are destined to fall? Is wisdom the answer? Is eating and drinking? Yet in its final verses, Kohelet concludes that ultimately one should “fear God and keep the commandments, for that is the whole duty of humanity,” since God judges all our actions. This reminds us more of the Christian message of the memento mori, rather than the joyous message of the festival of Sukkot. Why do we nevertheless read Kohelet on Sukkot? (Most Sephardim don’t!)
5) Other than God, anything eternal (or approaching eternal from the point of view of humanity) is inert; anything vital is by definition transient. Could the celebration of our transience be the celebration of our vitality? Where Kohelet says that everything under the sun is hevel, translated as “vanity” in English, are we really celebrating our life force, the hevel, or “breath (of Life)” bestowed upon us by God that turns us from inert eternal earth to transient living beings? Can true celebration of the gift of life come only after the acceptance of its necessarily ephemeral quality?