Since I was about five years old, I’ve been involved in building a sukkah. My family did not have our own in our own yard, but we did put together every year a sukkah in the parking lot of our synagogue. Every year my dad led the congregational effort, and came up with a new design each time. In Rochester, New York Sukkot was not just when the leaves fell but the sun would hide behind clouds until sometime in late spring. Often there were a few snowflakes in the air, though it was never an accumulation. Building that sukkah every year is one of my fondest childhood memories.
That memory surfaces every year as I now build sukkahs along with my congregation. there is a holiness about making a sukkah that I don’t find in many rituals, it is also one which I do the most in joy, no matter what the ever unpredictable Autumn weather brings.
Only five days prior to Sukkot we read about a sukkah in the Yom Kippur Mincha Haftarah. Jonah makes one to see what happens to Nineveh. The roof leaks light and heat of the sun burns him. Only the gourd gives him comfort, which promptly dies the next day. IN other biblical stories, At the town of Sukkot Jacob builds a house for himself and builds sukkot for his cattle, naming the town.
We also have the סכת שלמך the shelter of peace from the liturgy. In English we might call this a booth or a hut. Hebrew’s verbal counterpart to Sukkah(סכה) is Sachach(סכך) a word meant to overshadow, screen or cover. Our sukkot screen or shadow us. The Talmud of Sukkot begins the tractate by stating that if there is more sun than shade coming though the sukkah’s roof, it is not a valid Sukkah. Yet it is not a complete covering and must be made of plant material.
While I was sitting in the sun on Brannake Beach on the Island of Kauai, a local family put up a portable tent in about fifteen minutes. I had some interesting conversations with them, but I was rather interested in their point of view as locals about being out in the sun and being on the beach. The point of the tent was to keep the blazing sun out while able to see everything in this beautiful place. It may not have been a sukkah, but it was doing the same thing — keeping the sun out, but let them see the sea turtles swimming by, the crashing wakes against the rocks, the surfers riding a wave towards the shore.
The sukkah has a simple purpose. It’s supposed to be a simple booth. But when we put together the sukkah this year at my congregation, it took hours, not the fifteen minutes of the well-engineered popup tent. The complexity of the task is in fact amazing. It may be a simple hut but takes a good chunk of Talmud to describe its building.
My life is complex. Lately, I’ve begun to simplify things. I’m thinking about life in an idealized sukkah, the simple shelter, kind of way. I started to think about simple around the time of another Harvest festival, Shavuot, when I was told to pack up my office for the remodel of the offices at work. I realized I had a lot of stuff to pack. My office was crowded with stuff. For most of the summer, I was in a temporary location, either in another part of the building or in my own office, sharing it with others who offices were being remodeled.
There was a lot of stuff I shoved into boxes. As I unpacked however, something extraordinary happened. I started to not put things back, but throw them away or donate them. I realized in my office and in my home how much stuff I had accumulated.
Some people are good at accumulating things — they have problems throwing them away. I’m not not talking about hoarders here, just people who have a hard time getting rid of something. They reason the stuff might be of use later. I’m one of those. In what I do there times that is a very good strategy. But many times it is not.
Complexity in my life often come from collecting things and not letting go of it. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that is true of. Some of my things, as I mentioned in my Yizkor Drash, are hooks to memory, and cannot be thrown out because I want to remember my mom through some of her stuff. There is my artworks and sculptures, there to remind me that I can accomplish things. And there is my book collection, a reference library on several topics I’m involved in: Programming, Web design, Jewish studies, Educational Psychology, Business, Science, and Regulatory Affairs. That’s just the stuff I have reason to have in my office. There is also stuff I’m not quite sure why it is there. I just ignore it like it is invisible. That would be the problem stuff.
This week, I stand in a sukkah. Everything is so simple. There is a table and I eat. I shake a lulav and etrog. So much like the way I’d like my office to be — simple. In my dreams, I sit down in my office and I work on one thing until it is done. How nice it wold be but that is far from the truth. Looking out of that tent on the beach in Kauai, and looking out of the sukkah, I realize life isn’t simple. Outside the shade of simplicity that is the sukkah is a complex life — it can’t be avoided. Like the sun coming trough the windows of my office, I will have infinite interruptions and complexities in my day and I will get nowhere in any of the simple tasks of my day.
But complexity can be mitigated. The high holidays, besides ridding of what most would call sin, also gives us time to remove the needless complexities of our lives. The evaluation of our sins is the sealed judgement of Yom Kippur. The evaluation of the complexities is Sukkot, in living in the simplest kind of structure. Similiarly, I can throw out the needless junk in my office. All of it leads to a new beginning, the beginning of the Torah cycle and of the story of Creation.
We come out of Sukkot ready to create a new world for ourselves, one we hope is better, and in some sense simpler than the last one.
May your new world be a good one.