The sukkah is life

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.

For years I have been asked by Israelis “when are you  coming for Sukkot?”  I always blamed my absence on the cost of staying in a hotel, how many days of yom tov I would hold by, and a myriad of other excuses only an Anglo could concoct.

Well, having made aliya in March, I’m here and looking forward to my first Sukkot in Jerusalem albeit in lockdown.

I am fortunate in that the merpesit (balcony) of my apartment accommodates a sukkah.  The  schach is up, left there  by  the prior tenant, and I have  enough walls to comply with Jewish law.

Back in the states, I, like many of my fellow American Jews, would have been very busy preparing for the chag. We’d be searching for the pieces of the sukkah in our basements or garages, then standing on ladders joining together corners, then taking them down when we realized they were upside down.

We struggled 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 his way last year?” We found the schach or bought new when we realized we didn’t have enough because we lost some in the hurricane.

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 used to do and 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 of a certain age 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 them on page 129. It discussed how many walls the sukkah 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.

Using the back wall of our first home as the 4th wall, our sukkah went up 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 schach. We were set to go.

And, as the marginal notes in the Jewish Catalogue tell you, “never make the sukkah overly comfortable. It should shake in the wind.”‘  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 firstborn 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?” you ask.  In earnest she says,  it looked like a part of the schach was under the shade of a tree.” With alarm I asked, “What did you do?” “I made the bracha, silly, 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 the cost of $2,500 per year. [Oh, before you start making noises about the cost of an American yeshiva education, please bear in mind I was making $25,000 per year then.]

As our children progress in their studies, their education rubs off on us, too. And as we advance down that path things change. It was then that I learned that the Shulchan Aruch is full of do’s and don’ts when it comes to building the sukkah and the schach. 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. 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 schach. 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, and then as if overnight, the kids are gone and you begin to spend yom tov with them at their homes. Back at your house, you find 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. Depending on the weather forecast, you may not even hang decorations.

As we mature in our practices over the years, we learn that there is a lot of 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, 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.

The temporary nature of the sukkah poses a problem. Sometimes the wind is very strong. Sometimes it causes the schach to fall in our heads while we’re in the sukkah. Other times, we awake in the morning to see mats on the ground. 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. The sukkah is life. And like the sukkah, life can be uncomfortable, it can shake as if blown by the wind, and sometimes the schach 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.

And sometimes something happens that is out of our control and you cannot go up and down the ladder to fix the pieces.  Instead, you have to dig deep into yourself to repair the  damage.

It happens when your  daughter, the one who taught you about making a bracha in the kosher part of the sukkah, is murdered in a terror attack.

You think back to a happier time when you were surrounded by an intact family and friends in your sukkah.  You accept that everything that happens to us happens at the will of God.  And you can take comfort in that.

So, as I sit in my sukkah this year, as I have done for the past 25 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 schach.

Instead of stars shining over Jerusalem, I will see the sukkah of olam habah and the table set by the Almighty for those murdered al Kiddush Hashem. It’s a beautiful table with the finest linen, gold cups and silver candlesticks, and it overflow with the food that he provides.

I will see Alisa dressed in her finest with pilgrim’s sandals adorning her feet. She has a big smile on her face, her eyes shine and her dimples are deep. She passes the challah dipped in honey to the kedoshim sitting next to her. And I will hear her laugh as she retells the story of her sukkah hop from many years ago

About the Author
Stephen M. Flatow is the father of Alisa Flatow who was murdered by Iranian sponsored Palestinian terrorists in April 1995 and the author of "A Father's Story: My Fight For Justice Against Iranian Terror" available from Devon Square Press and on Kindle. He is an oleh chadash.
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