There are certain hallmarks involved in moving, in making the transition from one home to another. My children tease me for my “Shehecheyanu moments.” I say Shehecheyanu (our prayer thanking God for giving us life, sustaining us, and allowing us to arrive at this moment) at the drop of a hat: unpacking the first (and the last) box, the first Shabbat in our new home, the first time we invite new friends over.
I anticipated that building the first sukkah in our new backyard would be a big Shehecheyanu moment.
The sukkah is the closest Jews get to a Christmas tree. It is a mitzvah to beautify your Sukkah, but in recent years this mitzvah has morphed into some sort of performative competition, thanks to social media, where (if your feed is anything like mine) you can scroll through picture after picture of elaborate, tricked-out Sukkot filled with smiling children and hand-drawn art. It’s hard not to get caught up in the sukkah-building fervor.
Two months ago, we moved 500 miles south to start a new life in Durham NC. It’s beautiful here, but it is not home. Home takes time to grow. I felt, in my bones, that building a sukkah here would go a long way to helping cultivate the feeling of home. A sukkah is a temporary structure that reminds us of our own impermanence. When we sit in this temporary home, we come face to face with the truth: that as much as we nest and decorate, the homes that we love are impermanent. As much as we take care of our bodies, those bodies, too, are impermanent. Only God is forever.
Paradoxically, I felt that constructing the sukkah, this reminder of our fragility, from the pieces we lugged from our old home to this new place, would be exactly the ticket to getting me a step closer to feeling settled.
I was determined to make the sukkah beautiful, and threw all of my nesting energies toward this goal. Fairy lights, garlands of fake fall leaves, and candles — the decorations were lovingly procured. However, Erev Sukkot arrived and nothing was going right. I missed our old neighborhood, missed being able to see Rona and Adam’s sukkah from my kitchen window. Most years, we’d take turns helping each other build. Each year, Adam would grumble as he extracted the poles of his parents’ old sukkah from the garage. Ours is one of those easy kits purchased online, but Adam’s sukkah was built by hand years ago, and actually requires some thought and extra hands to construct — hence, the tradition of yearly grumbling. Every year, we would sit together in one of our Sukkot, dodging the fall rains and the back-to-school nights that inevitably fall during Sukkot when you are a religious person living in a secular world that recognizes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover — and seems to think that every other Jewish holiday is just taking things a step too far.
On the Sunday before the holiday Jonathan and I lugged the sukkah poles up from the basement and discovered that one small pole was missing — lost in the move. I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I had feared just this when I watched the movers throw the pieces of our sukkah into the moving truck.
I began crying and felt like a petulant child. It was all wrong. I am not a stickler for every halacha, but sitting in a non-kosher sukkah — in half a sukkah — felt all wrong, and it seemed to embody so much of what I was feeling about moving. I had known beforehand that it would be impossible to make this transition without loss — loss and grief are inevitable — but suddenly they also felt unbearable. I texted Rona a long, whiny text and she wrote me back and said that she thought I was being metaphorical, but then saw the picture I sent and understood that we were, in fact, missing a pole. I called all the local hardware stores, and even some electrical supply stores, but none of them could help.
Missing a pole felt like missing a limb.
I went to my new shul the next morning, and there I found myself missing my shul in White Plains, missing the voices of my friends there, missing sights and sounds and familiar smells, and struggling to find my place in this new place.
Afterwards, during kiddush in the synagogue sukkah I stood chatting with the rabbi and his wife and a few other congregants. As I was getting ready to leave someone asked me how the transition was going, and something — a desire to come clean about my non-kosher sukkah, or perhaps to share a small piece of the darkness I was feeling — made me blurt out: “We lost one of the poles to our sukkah in the move!” Rabbi Greyber said, “We have an extra one sitting in our garage. Do you want to come by our house and grab it to see if it fits?”
Dear reader, it fits. For real, and metaphorically. It is a Sukkot miracle.
I don’t think the Greybers knew what they were really offering me in that moment. Sometimes an extra metal pole sitting in your garage gathering dust is much more than just a pole to the person who needs that very pole to create her temporary house, which will magically transform her real house into something that feels more like home.
We call God the healer of hearts and the bandager of broken bones (Psalm 147:3), then we try to act like God and do those things out in the world. However, much of the time we offer other people things they don’t really need, or, more often, we don’t even offer, because we are shy, or, worse — stingy. But sometimes, in a holy moment, what we offer really does mend a bone or patch up a heart. Sometimes practical help is much more than just the thing offered; sometimes when you offer a meal or a ride or a pole you are actually helping a person to build themselves back into a person, helping to fill in gaps that you can’t see. Well, anyway, that is what it was like when Jennifer Greyber gave me the pole, and I took it home, and it fit.
This structure — the sukkah — like a home, is meant for gathering, for sharing meals and conversation. The PVC piping is not holy, the s’chach is not holy, the fairy lights and garlands of fall colors are not holy — and it’s not holy just because you put it together correctly. It becomes holy when you build it and this act of building brings you together with others, connects you to the people you are meant to be in community with.
There is a tradition of welcoming ushpizin, honored guests, into your sukkah. Real guests, but also mystical guests, ancestors whose qualities we admire and hope to emulate. I like the idea, nurtured in this pandemic era, of bringing in virtual ushpizin. It’s not the same as sitting across the table from Adam and Rona in an actual sukkah. But if the pandemic has taught us anything (and I would venture it has taught us more than enough — as my daughter would say, “Thanks Pandemic, I’m good.”) it has taught us to stay connected even when we can’t be physically next to each other. So tonight I will sit in my newly kosher sukkah and stare up through the roof at the moon, the same moon that hovers over Rona and Adam’s sukkah 500 miles north, sip some wine, and maybe throw in a Shehecheyanu. For the first time, we built a sukkah in North Carolina.