|It seems as if for the past five years all of America as felt like we are living in a Sukah. For Sukkot is that singular moment in our calendar, when we are commanded not only to express the highest sense of gratitude we can find for the manifold blessings that fill our lives, but to be conscious of how fragile and insecure life is as well.
It is our traditional fall harvest festival, and as such the ancient Jewish origins of what eventually in the hand of America’s pilgrims and founding ancestors became our annual November holiday of “Thanksgiving.” And therefore when we build our Sukkot, our temporary booths, we hang fruits and vegetables and symbols of the earth’s bounty as a reminder of the mitzvah of hoda-ah, of gratitude.
But Sukkot is much more than merely an opportunity to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. It is even more than a moral challenge to fulfill the mitzvah of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, as virtuous and important as both of those mitzvah opportunities and ethical challenges continue to be.
Sukkot is also a reminder of something even more profound. Our rabbis taught that the symbol of the temporary, fragile booths in which we are commanded to dwell each year for a week, is the symbol of how fragile life is altogether. Thousands of years ago they were wise enough to realize how often we human beings are seduced by our own creations into ascribing them the power to uplift and inspire and even bring a sense of the sacred into our lives.
How many of us have stood in awe and wonder as we gazed at the Sistine chapel or St. Patrick’s Cathedral or Temple Emanuel in New York City, or the cathedral-like Wilshire Blvd. Temple here in Los Angeles? How often have we been taken in by the magnificence of human architecture, the perceived brilliance of human design and creation, the inspiration of a magnificent building or tower or bridge or palace?
Our ancestors had the same experiences in their own time, and they were wise enough to be wary of how easily they found themselves impressed by the creation of human beings and therefore distracted from what matters most – the divine gifts of the spirit that come from God.
Not only is that one of the underlying ideas of the Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis, it is one of the most important lessons of the festival of Sukkot as well.
We live in fragile, temporary booths to remind us how foolish it is to place our faith in buildings of human creation, no matter how tall or how strong or how stable or how enduring they appear to be. We live for a week in a Sukah, so that we will remember that our ancestors spent forty years wandering in the desert between slavery and the promised land in search of the holy, in search of a way of life that could bring holiness and blessings into the world. Just as the time they spent in the desert was the most creative spiritual time of their history, so too we are urged to spend time every year in that same spiritual search for meaning and purpose in life.
Our ancestors learned that ultimately they had to place their lives into God’s hands. They had to live each day with faith that despite battles and rebellions and fire and earthquakes and fear and insecurity, as long as they continued to follow the path that God had given them, eventually they would arrive at the Promised Land.
That has been our lesson this year and every year as well. For ever since 9/11 five years ago, all of America has been a Sukah – everywhere has felt fragile, everywhere has felt vulnerable, everywhere has felt temporary and insecure. And so we all must follow the example of our Biblical ancestors – to walk with faith that if we continue to follow the path that God has shown us, together we too will eventually arrive at our own promised land.