A car hit a Jewish man. The paramedic says to him, "Are you comfortable?"
The man says, "Well, I make a good living."
Discovering the Hut
During the holiday of Sukkos Jews the world over relocate from their permanent homes and apartments to dwell in a sukkah, a makeshift hut covered with branches, bamboo sticks or reeds. During this seven-day festival, we eat, drink, schmooz, read, relax, debate and hang out in a sukkah. Many Jews, especially where the climate is more conducive, even spend the nights sleeping in these huts.
This Jewish behavior dates back around 3,300 years. Its origin is in the Bible, which states (1): "You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period; every member of Israel shall dwell in booths." Since this mitzvah was given to the Jewish people, once a year for seven days, Jews turn their makeshift huts into their primary home and residence.
What is the significance behind this mitzvah? The Torah explains it in these brief words (2): "So that your generations will know that I [G-d] sheltered the Jewish people in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt."
Yet the question is, what relevance does this mitzvah have to our lives today? More than three millennia after our liberation from Egypt, why should we spend time in a booth for a week each year? Yes, history is important. If you do not know where you came from, it is hard to figure out where you need to go. If you don't have roots, can you create destiny?
Our roots and history are so important because they inform and inspire our contemporary condition. Our past must serve as a template to guide our present and future. So how can we appreciate the sukkah as a fresh, contemporary message?
Secure in Your Vulnerability
In Jewish mysticism (3), the message of the seven-day sukkah experience is profoundly simple and moving.
At times, some of us feel that we are in full control of our lives. We have our secure walls to protect us and we feel immune to the pain and struggle of the less fortunate. We become smug and arrogant, consumed by our successes and infatuated with self-worship.
In instructing us to leave the walls of a stable and secure home in order to spend a week in a temporary and vulnerable structure, the Torah is attempting to inculcate within us the notion of how fragile we really are in this world. The sukkah is a call to sobriety, to remind us that despite our responsibility to maximize our potentials, pursue our ambitions and revolutionize our corners of the universe, at the end of the day we have very little control over the most essential aspects of our lives.
Our large and fancy mansions, physical or conceptual, can be deceptive. They can give us the sense that we are on top of the world and that we are safe and secure. On Sukkos, we learn of the fragility of life; we discover the truth that all of us are really living in a vulnerable hut. On Sukkos, we become comfortable and secure in our vulnerability, knowing that the walls of this fragile hut are essentially the embrace of G-d.
When you leave the walls of your stable and secure home, you can begin to feel that you are living in the perpetual embrace of the divine."
Discovering Your Humanness
This is why the festival of Sukkos is so deeply connected with the theme of Jewish unity. When I become smug and complacent, imagining that I am on top of the universe, I can easily forfeit my simple humanness, vulnerability and honesty; I can get carried away with my temporary successes and luxury. At such moments, I may feel that I need no one.
But when I go into the sukkah, when I encounter the truth of how vulnerable I really am in this world, I naturally feel much more connected to others. The sukkah allows diverse individuals to become one.
This following moving story, I encountered in several websites, illustrates the point well (4). A number of years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash.
At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish, and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over and began to cry.
The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them.
One girl with Down syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, "This will make it feel better."
Then all nine linked arms, and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and cheered; the cheering went on for a long time.
This story, my editor informed me, seems to be a legend. Yet its message moves us deeply. Why? Because the behavior of these children evokes a chord that lies at the deepest depths of our souls. It reminds us that what matters in life is more than winning for ourselves. What matters in this life is helping others win, even if it means slowing down, and changing our course. At the end of the day, we will win the race only when each of us wins the race.
Why is it these types of challenged children who so often teach us this lesson? Because while we live all year in our man-made secure homes, these holy children live all year around in a sukkah. Their physical and mental limitations, coupled with profound spiritual acuteness, never allow them to lose focus of what truly matters in life.
1) Leviticus 23: 42.
2) Ibid 23:43.
3) Mei Hasholoach Parshas Emor.
4) This story is quoted in Soul Prints (Simon & Schuster 2001) pp. 129-130.