I have always regarded the Festival of Sukkot as “Z’man Simchatenu,” the season of our joy as mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23:40). Following on the heels of the solemn High Holidays, I have enjoyed this joyful holiday, even the hard work of erecting our sukkah while wondering when the first rainfall would collapse the handmade, flimsy wooden structure. I have especially loved reciting Hallel, the prayer of Thanksgiving at Sukkot services https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hallel, and inviting guests to share our Sukkot meals.
Sukkot is also called “Hag Ha-asif,” the Feast of the Harvest (Exodus 23:16). In ancient Israel farmers, would make their annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, giving thanks for the bounty they had gathered. Until a few days ago, I paid minimal attention to this name, given that I am not living in an agricultural society.
However, what happened last Friday afternoon – a few hours before Shabbat/Erev Sukkot quickly changed my perspective and will remain with me for the rest of my life. My husband and I were driving from our home in Massachusetts en route to the New York City suburbs to celebrate with longtime family friends the bar mitzvah of their son and grandson. But as the Yiddish expression goes: “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht,” i.e. “Man Plans, and God Laughs.”
We’ve driven down to New York countless times. But since we were unfamiliar with the suburb where our hotel was located, we decided to use a phone app to guide the way. Big mistake! We followed the app’s directions precisely to the parkway – and before we could blink, the engine stalled. There we were smack in the middle of a river that, until a few seconds before, had been a major roadway. The car came to a standstill, and my husband couldn’t restart the engine. Stunned, we watched the water quickly rise as our car was fast becoming submerged.
The next thing we knew, we saw someone banging at the car window. “Get out of the car IMMEDIATELY,” the voice shouted as he pulled us both out into the deep water. Officer “John” led us to his police vehicle, and told us about the emergency situation in New York: All the roads in the area were blocked and highways had become lakes and rivers.
When this incident occurred a few hours before the onset of Shabbat and Sukkot, I couldn’t help but think of the words we recite upon entering the sukkah, “May it be your will, God of our ancestors that your Shekhinah dwells among us and may you spread over us the sukkah, or canopy of your peace.”
The Jewish mystics ascribed great importance to the sukkah, which was referred to as the “shade of faith” – or the protection of the Shekhina, God’s holy presence, namely the “sukkah that covers and protects us.” It’s a beautiful imagery of the shelter of peace, which envelops us – and which the commentators have defined both as a physical structure as well as the spiritual dwelling of the Israelites who resided among God’s clouds of glory.
According to Jewish mystical tradition, the seven days of the festival of Sukkot are linked with the seven Sefirot or Divine emanations – the mystical explanation for the seven clouds of glory that tradition says protected Israel in the wilderness as a bond of faith.
Truly, the Shekhinah in the form of Officer “John” was with us that day. We are forever grateful to him for magically appearing at our car window, getting us quickly out of our vehicle, transporting us to safety and our hotel, explaining what we needed to do, and diligently following up with us. Just today, I received an email from him, “If you ever need anything, please know you have a friend…”
Even though our car was declared a total loss because of extensive water damage, this Sukkot I truly feel the presence of God in our midst. Yes, our lives were at stake and our vehicle is off to the wrecking yard to soon become scrap.
But this accident taught important lessons about gratitude. In Hebrew, gratitude is “hakarat ha-tov,” i.e. recognizing the good. My husband and I will forever be grateful for the innate goodness of friends and strangers alike for their hesed, acts of loving-kindness.
In addition to Officer “John,” we so deeply appreciate our friends “M & P” for driving us to the towing yard to retrieve our personal effects and staying by our side for hours until it opened; taking our stuff back to Massachusetts; and driving us to the train station for our trip home. We are grateful to the towing company for politely answering our many questions, to the train employee who personally guided us to the platform, to the insurance company representatives for their prompt and courteous service. And, of course, as always, we are grateful to our rabbis for their spiritual support along the way.
At services this Shabbat/Shemini Atzeret, my husband and I will recite the Gomel blessing https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/birkat-hagomel-a-jewish-prayer-of-gratitude in gratitude for surviving this life-threatening flood. And while doing so, I will remember the importance of hakarat ha-tov and thanking others. And, of course, my thoughts will turn to those special good people to whom we will always be grateful.