In memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo (Yehudah) Mock z.l.
and Rabbi Ies (Yitzchak) Vorst z.l.,
two pillars of the Jewish Community in the Netherlands.
Nothing is more crucial for the religious personality, Jew or Gentile, than the question as to whether there is a God we can trust and rely on. Many people believe that God exists while wondering whether they can have faith in Him.
Clearly, it would make little sense to argue that man should have faith in God while remaining free of any responsibilities within this relationship. For instance, to leap from a building while trusting that God will save us does not make any sense—if God were to intervene, this would mean that man does not carry any responsibility for his deeds. After all, regardless of man’s actions, nothing could go wrong. This would mean that man cannot exercise his freedom of will and he would become a puppet, and there would not be any purpose to man’s existence.
Therefore, the question is to what extent man is to trust God and to what extent he is to rely on himself. This is a complicated question since every human is different and constantly finds himself in ever-changing circumstances.
Obviously, a significant portion of this question (and the answer thereto) is reliant on the laws of nature. These are created by God and seem to be completely consistent in the sense that they cannot be violated. They are indestructible and permanent, and it is man who must decide based on these laws how to act in certain instances.
This, I believe, is the message of the Sukkah, the “booth” we move into for the seven days of the Sukkot Festival. On the one hand, the Sukkah is founded on the laws of nature. The walls and the roof will rely on the law of gravity, for example. As such, it is possible for the Sukkah to stand and not fall over.
On the other hand, the Halakhah also states that the Sukkah’s walls do not need to be complete walls like those comprising our homes —a Sukkah’s walls may have considerable open spaces and still constitute “walls” according to Jewish law. The unique Sukkah roof—“shach,” often made from reeds or bamboo— must leak when it rains. As such, winds can penetrate the Sukkah, and the cold or heat enters the Sukkah quite freely. That means that the Sukkah may collapse in a much earlier stage than our regular homes normally do.
The protection the Sukkah offers is minimal, and it exposes one to all sorts of possible disasters. At any moment something may go wrong, and the Sukkah may collapse. The Sukkah needs to be a “dirat arai,” a “temporary dwelling,” and not a permanent home.
It is in this unstable condition that the Jew is asked to live his life for the full week of the Festival of Sukkot.
The message of this mitzva (commandment) is clear: man is to understand how vulnerable life really is. Even when we live in our comfortable homes throughout the year, we should know that these are, in reality, enlarged booths and may also collapse when tragedy strikes—possibly having stood for a lengthier period than the Sukkah, but it could happen!
This is also the case with all of life. Nothing is certain and all of us are vulnerable at different stages in our lives and under different circumstances. We may not want to admit this, but it is the truth. We may fall ill, be confronted by earthquakes, tsunamis, wars, car accidents and so on.
The question then is: Why are we prepared to live under such dangerous conditions?
Possibly, it would be best to contemplate suicide, as philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Albert Camus (1913-1960) have wondered.
But here comes the great surprise: Judaism suggests the reverse! It asks the Jew to enjoy this extreme form of vulnerability. It asks the Jew to enjoy this unstable structure precisely because it is unstable!
Judaism suggests that the Jew decorate this fractured booth. It suggests that he brings his most expensive silver cutlery into this hut, and if possible, to even move his most beautiful furniture and an expensive carpet into this (tiny) home. Paintings and drawings should beautify the unstable walls, and above all, the leaking roof should be decorated by all sorts of embellishments, such as fruits.
Jewish law refers to these acts of adorning and embellishing the basic compulsory structure of the Sukkah as “hiddur mitzva,” the “beautification of a commandment.” Such additional actions are perceived in a highly favorable light.
How strange! The Jew is not asked to decorate his permanent home. It is not a mitzva to do so. One is allowed to do so, but it is only in this unstable Sukkah that it becomes a religious calling, something that beautifies the mitzva.
It is even suggested that one sings optimistic songs, dresses like a king, his wife like a queen, and his children like princes and princesses when dining in the Sukkah. He is encouraged to invite guests and have very tasteful meals. And all this in an unstable booth which may collapse any moment!
If anything is a paradox, it is this!
The message could not be clearer: The more vulnerable and insecure life is, the more one should enjoy it!
Because it is in this insecurity that man realizes that nothing can be taken for granted. With everything that can go wrong, man is reminded that when things go right, he should be thankful and be totally surprised that the laws of nature are actually operating. Afterall, that the laws of nature work is not at all obvious.
Many philosophers have stated that we cannot even be 100% certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. Why? Because, in truth, the laws of nature are in reality the frequent recurrence of a miracle, the constant repetition of a “natural” unexplainable phenomenon!
Nobody knows why it is these laws exist. Science may tell us what happened in the past or today, but it is definitely not able to explain why it happens. It was the famous physicist Stephen Hawking who summed it up very well when he asked: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” We have no answer to this question other than to say that behind all this there may be an intelligence, which itself is a mysterium.
It is this awareness that stands at the root of the festival of Sukkot. The Sukkah teaches us that many so-called “hard facts” in life are in fact unreliable and henceforth a source of constant amazement when they work. The more we realize the miraculous nature of all these phenomena, the more we live in joy. Joy, after all, is the result of amazement.
It is the limited trust we can have in God that makes this world meaningful. Indeed, in Judaism, God is the Creator of our universe, and this includes the laws of nature—but beyond this, there is little security. And, it is insecurity that wins the day.
This is why we can celebrate God’s world. If we were able trust God in all matters, we would take Him and the laws of nature for granted; life would become meaningless since we would have no independent role to play in life and no true joy to experience.