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Published on October 5th, 2012 | by Natan Margalit


Sukkot — The Paradox of Joy

I’m trying to understand why sitting outside, with barely a thatching of roof over my head, leafy bits dripping into my food, in the nippy fall weather, on a hard folding chair propped on uneven ground, is the way we celebrate what is supposed to be the most joyful of all the festivals of the Jewish calendar.

It says in Leviticus 23 that the Israelites should live in booths for the seven days of Sukkot, which is not so surprising since it’s a harvest festival, and we can imagine that during the harvest time people might have lived in temporary huts so that they could be closer to the fields and not waste precious time walking back to their homes miles away. It makes some sense that the harvest festival would make a ritual out of the harvest hut.

But then the Torah gives a strange reason for sitting in a sukkah: “In order that your generations will know that I caused the people to live in Sukkot (huts or booths), when I took them out of Egypt.”  (Lev. 23:43)

What does the Exodus from Egypt have to do with the harvest festival? First of all, the Israelites went out of Egypt in the spring, and this is the fall. Second, and more importantly: what booths? Until now, we have never heard about any booths or huts in the desert! This is the first mention of these dwellings. And why are we suddenly talking about the desert during the harvest festival?

I think we get a hint at what’s behind this when we look at Deuteronomy, Chapter 8, verses 11-17:

“Beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God, in not keeping His commandments, and His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command thee this day; lest when thou hast eaten and art satisfied, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; who led thee through the great and dreadful wilderness, wherein were serpents, fiery serpents, and scorpions, and thirsty ground where was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint; who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that He might afflict thee, and that He might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end; and thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.’”

It is in this passage from Deuteronomy that we see the relationship between the desert and the harvest. The sense of wealth from the harvest can create a spiritually dangerous situation. The Israelites could say, “My power, the might of my hand, has gotten me this wealth.” The desert experience, with its complete deprivation of any possibility of the people providing for themselves, their complete dependence on God for food, clothing — everything — is meant to be a reminder during the season of plenty that we didn’t do it all by ourselves.

So, the idea of sitting in a sukkah to remind us of the desert experience makes more sense: At the time when we are full of ourselves, we need to remember the time of dependence, and of our reliance on God to provide for our needs.

And yet, I have more questions: Why the sukkah? Why not just say: remember the desert? And also, the desert doesn’t sound all that pleasant. In fact, the Torah says that it was a test for the Israelites. Eating the manna is described as “afflicting us,” but the festival specifically says that this is a time of joy.

Let’s look at the sukkah: its main feature is the roof. That’s the only part that really counts. To make it a kosher sukkah, the roof must be impermanent; it must be made of things that grow from the ground, but are no longer growing. It must provide shade, and it is good if a little space is left so that you can still see the stars in between.

The sukkah represents that sweet spot between two extremes: In the desert, we were forced to be like infants, totally dependent, and that is not an easy or pleasant thing for adults. That was the extreme of the desert, necessary for the generation that had been slaves in Egypt. They must have needed those years of total dependence on God in the desert wanderings in order to heal from the trauma of slavery. But it was a trial, and not the ideal.

On the other side: We can build ourselves into isolation. When we build houses, permanent houses, we isolate, and we are in danger of making the statement that we can somehow protect ourselves, that we can control our lives and our fate and that, if we use enough sturdy bricks, like in the story of the three little pigs, nothing can come and blow our houses down.

Where do we find security if building stronger walls, higher barriers or taller towers isn’t the answer? We can only find security in relationship: relationship to the Earth, relationship to one another, and relationship to God. And relationships are constantly evolving; they can change day to day. They are never so secure that you can take them for granted, or not pay attention to them, but they provide a kind of security that is stronger than any walls.

Looking at the shifting light coming through the corn stalk roof of our sukkah, I can feel the beauty of this paradox. That roof is the secret to really enjoying the bounty that we harvest – it keeps us in relationship. We need to be open a bit, vulnerable enough to accept change, open enough to enter into a relationship which can never be set in stone, locked away for safe keeping. We build, we protect ourselves and make our mark, but we always leave a little opening, a few cracks to see the stars, to imagine that not our own power and the strength of our hands that protects us, but rather the relationships that we build, perhaps even the wings of the Shechina, hovering between the stars and the earth, lovingly sheltering our lives like a mother bird over her young. And so what if a few leaves drop in the food? It’s kind of like camping in your back yard, the food just tastes better even with a few leaves in it.

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