I don’t know about you. But for me, the sukkah is a great tutor of the meaning of life.
The lesson starts well before the Festival of Booths, when I anguish for most of Elul and the first half of Tishrei: “How will I get the plywood walls from the garage to the deck? Will I remember how to lay the crossbeams so the roof doesn’t descend upon our heads in a shower of sgach? And as for the sgach: Will I finally break down and order bamboo mats and abandon the mess of pine boughs and their ever-falling needles and sap that turn the yontif soup into turpentine?”
I dread thinking about the sukkah. It weighs on my mind like the thousand iron bars that fall upon the head of one so bold as to seek a vision of the Living God on His Celestial Throne!
But then, miraculously, it all comes together and the sukkah “happens.” Every year, one way or another, it gets built.
One year the visiting angels came in the form of a crew of NCSYers, which was like hiring the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges to star in a remake of Gone With the Wind. But the sukkah survived their ministrations to last through Shemini Atzeret!
For the last three years Elijah reliably showed up, in the form of our neighbors’ teenager, to manage the heavy lifting and engineering. I hoped he’d show up again this year, but, alas, this Elijah is now a freshman at Wazzu.
This year’s redemption, it turns out, came in the form of a Righteous Gentile who appeared on my patio courtesy of the Millionair Club. Two hours later — and the day before Yom Kippur (!) — our sukkah was up. My wife (and personal electrical engineer) Charla did her usual stellar job of figuring out, in the tangle of wires and bulbs, which plugs fit into which sockets and, well before deadline, we were up and running. Simple!
Reminds me of that old joke about the battle for the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in 1948. As the battle rages, a little old Jew runs back and forth, waving his arms and shouting: “Yidn! Don’t rely on miracles! Recite Psalms!”
And the miracle came. After a week of blustery weather, the first night of yontif, you’ll remember, was balmy and clear. Beautiful sukkah weather! After our guests left, I sat alone in our cheerful little hut, sipping a scotch with a nice piece of mezonos (Charla’s killer chocolate-fig cake — try it!), swelling with pleasure and pride in a task well done.
And then the lesson of the sukkah dawned on me.
Most of life is lived in anticipation of how things will be, at some suitably far-off moment, just as we always wished them to be. But how often does that happen? More often than not, the things we wait a lifetime for fail to happen. Or they happen in a way that makes us regret getting our wish. Or what happens makes us abandon all hope.
The sukkah is different. Every year I anticipate catastrophe befalling us in the sukkah: It won’t get built; it will get built and fall over; a guest will observe some flaw in my sgach and depart in a huff. Or the inscrutable Will of God will intervene: I remember two years ago arranging the sukkah for the first night and setting the table just so — just in time for a downpour that left our sukkah ankle deep in water.
But — most of the time — just the opposite happens. Usually, despite the month of anticipatory anguish, I find myself sitting in repose, admiring the labors that went into the sukkah, and sighing in contentment: “This is the way it’s supposed to be!”
Unlike real life, the sukkah gives me a chance to be shocked by a world that is actually better than I expect it to be. Not a letdown at the end of years of hope, but a protective cloud of peace and calm in the midst of the storm of life’s shipwreck.
At those moments in the sukkah, sheltered by a flimsy roof, surrounded by wobbly walls, bathed in the glow of colored Christmas lights now impressed with the calling of a higher, yet more humble, holiness — at those moments I feel like the world “works.”
The sukkah has wrought its magic in my life once again. And I am not “saved,” not “perfected,” and not “redeemed.” Just embraced by the warmth of the mitzvah — wholly alive and in perfect peace.