Sukkot is marked by the construction of temporary dwellings as mandated in the Torah. For a fuller discussion, see Judaism 101.
In any event, I was invited to speak before Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey on the second day of the holiday.
My written remarks follow. Translations are indicated by italics.
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The sukkah is life
Rabbi Baum, thank you for this gracious invitation to speak from the bimah today.
I have spoken from this bimah before, the last time when I recited the first sheva bracha [seven blessings] under the chuppa [wedding canopy] when Gail married Binyamin. We are still arguing over who got the better of that deal.
We were all busy the last few days preparing for the chag [holiday]. We located the pieces of the sukkah in our basements or garages, then stood on ladders joining together corners, then taking them down when we realized they were upside down. We tried to remember which way the windows opened or whether the canvas was on the right side of the frame, and kept saying to ourselves, did I do it this way last year?
We found the s’chach [covering] or bought new when we realized we didn’t have enough although we had enough last year.
And, finally, we watched with pride as the decorations so laboriously made by our children, or bought by our wives, went up and, miracle of miracles, the timers and lights worked.
Of course, you could have done what I did, that is call my local Chabad guys who sold me the sukkah in the first place and have them put it up in exchange for a modest contribution.
Those of us who learned their preliminary Judaic traditions from the Jewish Catalogue could easily refer to the instructions it contained on how to build a kosher sukkah. You will find the instructions on page 129. It discussed how many walls it needed, what to use for the walls and covering, and even contained a parts list of cinder blocks for the corners, 2 x 4s and 1 x 2s.
In 1979, using the back wall of my house as the 4th wall, our first sukkah went up in the backyard of our first home in West Orange with the cinder block corners, the wood supports, walls made out of bamboo strip fencing that came in a 40 foot roll, and branches from the backyard trees for the s’chach. We were set to go.
As the marginal notes in the Jewish Catalogue tell you, “never make the sukkah overly comfortable. It should shake in the wind.”[i] And boy was it uncomfortable and it didn’t so much shake in the wind as the walls rippled in a wave from one end to the other depending on the wind direction. But who cared, it was our first sukkah and we slept in it the first night.
Sukkot is a special time for children, they like the decorations, and they like to see what their friends have done. As your daughter gets older, she goes on a sukkah hop and comes back to tell you in a whisper that she didn’t think the sukkah at one of the houses was 100% kosher.
Why? “It looked like a part of the s’chach was under the shade of a tree.” With alarm I asked, “What did you do?”
She answers, “You’re silly daddy, I made the bracha [blessing] in a part of the sukkah that I was sure was kosher.”
Not a bad answer, I thought, from a child getting a yeshiva education at a cost of $2,500 per year. [Oh, before you start making noises, bear in mind I was making $25,000 per year then.]
As our children progress in their studies, we learn, too. And as we advance down that path things change. It was then that I learned that the shulchan aruch [Code of Jewish Law] is full of dos and don’ts when it comes to building the sukkah and the s’chach. No more a sukkah built from scratch. Our next one had to be one made out of steel poles, with blue walls, and bamboo poles for the s’chach. And, yes, during the second year, I realized that I had lost the assembly instructions. So, it was up and down the ladder for me.
As your family expands, you go for the wood panel job, with a door on hinges, and now you have graduated to bamboo mats, the kosher kind, of course, for the s’chach.
And when your family gets still larger, and you want to be able to have guests join you for a meal, you add a panel to each side.
All is well for many years, and then, as if overnight, the kids are married, and wonders never cease, begin having children of their own, and you begin to spend yom tov with them in Bergenfield. You no longer need the 20’ x 10’ sukkah with the 4 bamboo mats. You find that an 8 x 10 is more than enough for a few days of chol hamoed [intermediate days of a holiday.]
There is a discussion among the rabbis as to what the sukkah symbolizes. Does it recall the protection of the clouds that hovered over the children of Israel in the desert? Or does it recall the actual construction of temporary booths built during the wandering? The Talmud in mesechta Sukkah daf beit amad aleph is clear that we are required to leave our permanent dwelling and live in a temporary one throughout the chag.
Of course, being that we are talking about a tradition, there’s a third understanding—that both interpretations are true.[ii]
The temporary nature of the sukkah poses a problem. Sometimes the wind is very strong. Sometimes it causes the s’chach to fall in our heads while we’re in the sukkah. Other times, we awake in the morning to see mats on the ground, or a wall collapse. Heartbroken, we run to the rav to get instructions on when we can and how we can repair the sukkah.
I would like to suggest a third reason for the sukkah. And that is the sukkah represents life.
For life, like the sukkah, can be uncomfortable, it can shake as if blown by the wind, and sometimes the s’chach collapses around you.
At the end of the day, despite our cinder block corners, despite our metal cross bars, despite the snap-in joints, the sukkah is not a solid structure.
Neither is life. And as we marry and create a family structure, we must admit that sometimes we put the pieces together backwards, or upside down, and we may have to go up and down ladder many times, or take apart the poles and reassemble them.
Life happens to all of us.
A week before Pesach [Passover] in 1995 I exchange emails with Alisa who tells me she wants to go with friends to Petra to see the Nabataean city famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system.
She asks if she has enough money in her credit card to pay for it. She writes in what was to be our final email exchange, “I like America,” which to me was her at long last admission that she liked her allowance and the privileges we had given her.
Yet, it turns out that her proposed traveling companions did not have the funds to make the trip. So Petra is out, and she plans a trip to the Israeli community in Gush Katif on the shore of the Mediterranean in Gaza.
When I last spoke to Alisa late motzei Shabbat on April 8th, Sunday morning her time, she was telling me about her trip to Gush Katif and I asked her what was so special about the place. She said that the beach has separate swimming and sitting areas for men and women, that the weather was going to be 80+ degrees and that she wanted to get a sun tan before Pesach began at the end of the week.
We reviewed the traveling rules I had given her and, approving of them, I told her to have a good time, and to call us when she returned to Jerusalem on Wednesday. I hung up the phone and went to bed.
The next morning, while in shul, the phone rang. I went to answer it because I knew it was for me.
You see, as I drove to shul that morning I heard of a bus bombing in Gaza. And although I did not hear the sound of the explosion or anyone’s cries of pain, I knew that Alisa was involved and that only God could help at this point. I didn’t want to alarm my wife Rosalyn, so instead of turning around, I continued on my way.
Now, Roz was on the other end of the phone. She had just gotten a call from the mother of one of Alisa’s traveling companions who happens to live not too far from here. The girls had been in a terrorist bus bombing and her friends were taken away from the scene so quickly that they became separated from Alisa and didn’t know where she was. I returned home.
In an hour or so, we located Alisa in a hospital in Beer Sheva. Having two doctors tell me that she was injured in the head and I should come right away, I flew to Israel that afternoon. And 48 hours after last speaking to her, I was at Alisa’s bedside.
While there had been no encouragement when I spoke to the doctors on Sunday, I didn’t ask if her injury was life threatening. They now explained that Alisa was dead because she was no longer breathing on her own. At the recommendation of Rabbi Moshe Tendler, we called in a rabbi, a pediatric neurologist who writes books on Halacha and medicine, for his opinion, and after ordering additional tests, he concurred.
The daughter who would roll her dark brown eyes and laugh at my stupid jokes, who taught me that blue socks don’t go with a black suit, and who crocheted my first personalized kippah, would no longer roll her eyes, laugh at me, teach me how to dress or crochet another kippah.
While we agreed to transplant her organs to give life to several Israelis, the s’chach had just fallen on my head.
When the s’chach falls in this way there is no shulchan aruch to turn to for the dos and don’ts. Your rabbi can tell you that your daughter died al Kiddush Hashem, in the sanctification of God’s name. But that’s only a start.
Instead, you have to find your own way to rebuild the s’chach.
You can do that by taking on the foreign country that financially sponsored your daughter’s murderers. You then find yourself fighting your own government which appears to be taking the side of your enemy.
You rely on your own resources and realize that you are part of a 2,000 year old chain of events that has caught up the Jewish people. You can think about the survivors of the Holocaust who put back together their lives after losing families.
You can remember that for the past 100 years the Jews of, first, Palestine, and now, Israel, have been caught up in a genocidal campaign waged by the surrounding Arab population. When you realize that more than 20,000 Jews have been murdered in Israel, you have to pause and consider that each victim had a family, and they got up from shiva, got dressed, went to work, raised families and built a nation. I had no right to hide under the covers.
Every now and then, someone will ask if I have any regrets about that last telephone call. Yes, I say, and they think I am going to regret that I allowed her to go to Gush Katif. Instead, I tell them I regret that when I finished talking to Alisa, I didn’t say “I love you.”
I squandered the opportunity for my last words with her to be something meaningful to me and I hope to her. My heart would still have been broken but perhaps the pain would have hurt just a little less.
As I sit in the sukkah this year, as I have done for the past 19 years, I will watch the walls move gently in the wind, and I will look up to see the stars twinkling through the permitted space of the s’chach.
I will see the sukkah of olam habah and the table set by the Almighty for those murdered al Kiddush Hashem. It’s a long table but a beautiful one.
I see that it is set with the finest linen, gold cups and silver candlesticks, and it overflows with the food that He provides.
I see Alisa dressed in her finest. She has a big smile on her face, her eyes shine and her dimples are deep. Her face glows as she passes the challah dipped in honey to Naftali, Eyal and Gilad. And I will hear her laugh as she tells the boys, “it’s OK, make the bracha, the s’chach is kosher.”
May it be G-d’s will that he spread his sheltering cloud over us and klal Yisrael, that our s’chach be kosher and quickly repaired when it falls in on us and that we never miss the opportunity to say I love you.
[i] P. 129, Siegel, Richard, Strassfeld, Michael and Sharon, The Jewish Catalogue, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973
[ii] For a detailed discussion, see Introduction to Succos- its Significance, Laws and Prayers; Artscroll Mesorah Series; Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications, 1982.