Building A Sukkah again, for the first time

When I was the parent of young children, Sukkot was the happiest of times. We loved everything about it – the decorations, the outdoor setting, the steady stream of friends, even the bees. It seemed completely unfathomable at that point in our lives that, as we’d been hearing from some older friends, once the kids left for college, we’d stop building a sukkah all together. Yet, with the passage of time, I must confess that this is exactly what happened.  While it is true that for some of those years we lived in a high-rise apartment on the thirty-fifth floor, without a balcony, that hardly tells the whole story. Over the decades, Sukkot without our kids at home seemed no longer resonant. “What was the point?” we asked ourselves.  

This year, in the mountains of North Carolina, after many years of living a hut-less existence, we have decided once again to build our own sukkah. Now that I’ve stocked all the necessary accoutrements, and am looking forward to commencing the construction, albeit with a bit of trepidation owing to my less-than-sophisticated mechanical prowess, I find myself ruminating about this reversal. If you’ll pardon the cross-holiday appropriation, why after nearly 20 years of not having a sukkah, is this Sukkot different from all others?

To be sure, I do not think it has anything to do with an enhanced sense of “commandedness” in my old age. I acknowledge the halakhic injunction that “all citizens in Israel” should “live in booths” (Leviticus 23:42), but with apologies to the late Yeshayahu Leibovitz and those who dismiss explicating the mitzvot as idolatrous, divine ordinance alone (however compelling for some) just doesn’t do it for me. At the same time, I no longer fit squarely into the demographic described in the 2000 book, The Jew Within, in which the authors posit the link between episodic performance of ritual on the part of many post-modern Jews and the potent influence of “family, food and festival.” While once, perhaps, pivotal factors in my holiday observance, this explanation hardly accounts for the pending construction of my first sukkah in decades. 

No, none of the standard expositions work for me. This year I have been reflecting upon the significance of the sukkah as (what post-talmudic rabbinic authorities called) dirat ‘arai a temporary dwelling, in contrast to what they termed dirat keva’ – a permanent dwelling. Arcane as they may be, these concepts of permanent and temporary dwellings ceased to be obscure, intellectual categories for me about fourteen months ago. As I wrote in these pages last September, the house my wife and I lived in and loved in the Blue Ridge Mountains sustained a devastating middle-of-the night fire in July of 2020. While we were lucky to make it out alive, and we are blessed to have had insurance, along with good friends and a loving family, we lost almost everything. As a result, we no longer think of permanent and temporary dwellings in the same way as once before. 

Over the past 60 COVID-filled weeks, we came to learn that a temporary residence, be it one of the hotels or apartments we lived in, can actually feel like home, while we may never feel that way again about our now “rebuilt” permanent (?) domicile. To be sure, we are far from the only people to experience the never-ending assault of broken promises, frustrating hold ups and incalculable reversals as part of a catastrophic loss. Fighting with insurance adjusters and general contractors, delays of furniture, fixtures and cabinets, drywall, carpeting, and roofing are par for the pandemic course. While we may not be alone, however, the accretive impact of what it means to start all over again has taught us that purported permanence is illusory at best.  

When attempting to explain the timing of the autumnal festival of Sukkot, several rabbinic commentators note that by all rights, the holiday should come, not in the month of Tishrei, following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as it does, but in the Spring in the month of Nisan, following Pesach and the Exodus from Egypt, when sukkah-dwelling was an organic part of the Israelite historical experience. The explanation for this timing offered by the nineteenth century exegete known as the Malbim (Meir Loeb ben Yehiel Michael) is particularly resonant, at least for us. Sukkot, he notes, takes place during the harvest, a time of seeming permanence, when life’s necessities are in full supply, and few are thinking about the ephemeral nature of their lives and possessions. 

Future generations should not be overconfident at the time of the harvest, when their houses are full of good, and think that this world is their purpose and foundation of their life … [they] should realize that this world is a guesthouse and a temporary dwelling. Thus, they leave their permanent dwelling for a temporary dwelling, which is what the sukkah symbolizes…” (Malbim, Ha’Torah Ve’hamitzvah 207, cited in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein) 

Tempting as it might be after all this time, to say we are finally back in our permanent home, we know that permanence is at best a chimera. Have we made progress, and are we grateful? Of course. But this past year has taught us what the Malbim reminded his students. At precisely the time when one is inclined to feel proud of a new home, bloated with confidence, and eager to put the uncertainty of the past in the rearview mirror, it is best to remember that “this world is a guesthouse and a temporary dwelling.”  

So, in a few days, as we endeavor to build our first sukkah in a very long time and “leave the permanent dwelling [scaffolding and all] for a temporary dwelling,” we are more aware than ever of the blurred lines between endurance and evanescence. We will do whatever we can, weather and bears permitting, to make our temporary dwelling feel like home, while never losing sight of the fact that our permanent home is at best a dirat ‘arai – a temporary one, a guesthouse – that we must treasure for as long as we can. Chag Sukkot sameach.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the past president and CEO, and current chancellor of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. He is the principal consultant for Leadership For Impact LLC, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm specializing in nonprofit organizations.

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