(I wrote this in 1999. The lessons still apply.)

 

My wife called me at the office one October morning with the bad news: a ferocious windstorm had blown down our sukkah in suburban Connecticut. What seemed sturdy the day before had collapsed into a heap with all the decorations, a long table — everything.

Self-deceiving optimist that I am, I pictured the structure that my family had built and decorated as a house of cards, neatly stacked, no serious damage. I arrived home in the dark, too late to see anything, not that I wanted to look. The next morning, however, before my rush to the Metro-North train station, I got a good look at just what the dybbuk-wind wrought: twisted metal, screws wrenched from beams, a folding table turned upside down with its legs knocked loose. Shelter became a splintered chaos, a symbol of our lives.

And the wreckage could have been avoided, since the sukkah was up for two weeks after I should have dismantled it. Rationales for inaction abounded. We wanted new friends to see it. I was sick. The time never seemed right. All were reasonable enough, and all amounted to nothing when the storm caught the green wrapping and smashed our sukkah down.

In her book The Jewish Parents’ Almanac, Julie Hilton Danan writes that modern Jewish thinkers view the sukkah as “a symbol of the joyous yet fragile nature of human existence.” That perspective, with its inherent tension, gained strong personal meaning as I struggled to unscrew and salvage the sukkah. We built it with joy, and were delighted to have two new families of our acquaintance celebrate with us.

Then, I just left it up without every getting around to taking it down — or rather, I didn’t nurture and care for it. That it ultimately fell in a heap meant I really did have to deal with it, except I did so on unpleasant terms imposed on me rather than on my own terms. Speaking practically, it’s much easier to dismantle a sukkah that’s standing up rather than one flattened into kindling.

The crash and its consequences will always give Sukkot a personal resonance for me somewhat absent from other Jewish holidays. Sukkahs, faith, family — all need and deserve nurturing. Just as I learned to take care of my family’s sukkah at the right time, so should I not let other aspects of my life slide, waiting to pay attention some other day. The day when attention must be paid will come, sooner rather than later, and the payment can be painful. In matters spiritual or temporal, interest accrues and the bill ultimately gets paid.

By the way, I’m buying replacement parts and will rebuild the sukkah next fall.