Security and The Human Condition
The holiday of Sukkot is referred to in our prayers as זמן שמחתנו, “z’man simchatenu,” “the time of our rejoicing.” However, the celebration of Sukkot involves us in many dichotomies. For one, the very structure of the sukkah presents a contradiction. The walls can be of the strongest steel or reinforced concrete. They can be capable of withstanding a nuclear explosion. Yet the special roof, the “s’chach,” from which the sukkah derives its name, must be only from materials that grow from the ground but no longer attached to the ground. The vegetation used for the roof must be thick enough to provide the ratio of more shade than sun, as measured if the sun was directly overhead. Yet, it must be thin enough to let in rain and to allow the stars to be seen through it at night.
There is a second contradiction. The Torah tells us the holiday of Sukkot is to take place at the end of the summer harvest. Sukkot, then, is also called “Chag Ha’Aseif,” “the Holiday of the Ingathering.” Elaborate celebrations, parties and revelry are to take place each night during the six intermediate days of Sukkot. The site of these nightly celebration is none other than the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Yet on the Shabbat of Sukkot, we read the Book of Ecclesiastes. In this sacred work written by King Solomon, we read an opening verse, “Futility of futilities says Koheleth. Futility of futilities, all is futile!” In this verse the wise king is making his thesis statement on which the rest of the book revolves. It is bleak. All strivings by mankind are worthless. What a downer! Why then do we read this book on Sukkot?
Finally, the 7th day of Sukkot is called “Hoshana Rabbah,” “The Great Hoshanah.” The Talmud tells us this is a day of serious judgement. On it we are judged by God for the amount of rain we will receive for the coming year. So much of what we are and what we do is dependent on water. Our rabbis tell us that if there is any day in the year to go to shul in the morning, it is on Hoshana Rabbah. Yet, this day is part of “the time for our rejoicing.”
To answer, I would like to propose that, in a nutshell, the holiday of Sukkot reflects the human situation. We live all year long in a firm structure but then, along comes a Hurricane Ian, or a tornado or an earthquake. True the walls of the sukkah are strong and perhaps it has air conditioning for some in Florida and heaters for those in the Northeast. There may even be a lock on the door, but the elements still make their way in as do bugs, occasional birds and well…
No doubt that the completion of a harvest is a time to rejoice and to be thankful. Look what we produced! A feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and security overcomes us. Our shelves are well stocked with food. There is enough to get us through the long winter until the spring harvest is complete. Yet does one ever truly feel secure? Do we ever have enough? Recently in America, we experienced shortages of necessities such as baby formula and soaring prices for gasoline. Hurricane Ian knocked power for over 2 and ½ million residents in Florida. When no power is available for days on end food spoils. The residential devastation and displacement of thousands of people has a multibillion-dollar cost. We are grieved by the terrible misfortune endured by our brethren and must come to their aid in every way that we can. In this regard I am proud to say our Posnack students have organized a Hurricane Ian Relief Drive.
This is the reality of the human condition. It is necessary for us to reflect on this truth at least once a year. Not just for a day or two but for an entire week. Can we change our way of living and our attitude about life even for this one week? Can we then carry over the lesson of Sukkot to our living the other 358 days of the year? Sukkot and the mitzvah of sukkah causes us to come to grips with the idea that our existence is a totally dependent one. We need each other but more importantly we are totally reliant on God. We eat, sleep, study, and watch TV in the sukkah but when we look up at the roof, the “s’chach,” we realize our true security only comes from above, from God. We may understand science and know how natural events occur, but we are not in control. Left to our own devices, we are often helpless.
Not being in control of our surroundings and environment is unsteadying, but that is just half of our reality. The other half is knowing that there is a true source to the reality of the universe. This source is qualitatively different from anything we know. The only real security we can have comes from being in line with this source of reality, God. This idea, in part, is the message of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Everything is futile if we over endow the physical world with our security, sense of accomplishment and life’s goal. The physical world itself is dependent for its existence on the same source as is our existence, God, creator of heavens and earth. If we use the physical world properly, as a means to a relation with the Creator, that is the only way to achieve true security. But if we view wealth, success, productivity as the goal of life, then we are doomed to a life of conflict. We will never have enough, and we will never feel secure.
One of the challenges of the generation of Jews living in the desert for 40 years was related to this very issue. They were told “manna” would fall every morning for food, except on Shabbat. Any extra food gathered on a weekday would melt and become wormy. However, Friday a double portion of “manna” fell, and it would not become wormy for Saturday. Can you image living each day not sure if the food would come?! And if it did come, would it last?! What about your family, your little kids, elderly parents, or infirm friends? Can your existence be any more dependent than that? Coming to grips with this fundamental truth is the challenge of the mitzvah and Yom Tov of Sukkot. Sukkot is the “time of our rejoicing. The real rejoicing takes place when we can embrace and internalize its purpose.
May Hashem grant each of us the opportunity to use the holiday of Sukkot and its attendant mitzvot to realign our life to find security in the ultimate reality, God. Then Sukkot will truly be for us a “time of our rejoicing” in the security of Hashem.
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach, Moadim L’simcha, and good Yom Tov,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan