Sukkot, religious rituals and how to pass on your faith to your children
I was so excited about the prospect of building my first sukkah – the hut or booth at the heart of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot – that I tweeted a photo of the wood. So imagine my sorrow, when, five days after the start of the holiday week, we always had failed to mount the thing.
One of the three pilgrimage festivals, ancient Jews traveled to Jerusalem to observe Sukkot at the temple. But building a sukkah was so difficult for our family that it seemed like a trip to Jerusalem would have been easier than building a little hut on our patio in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Not that we haven’t tried. But our attempt was some kind of comedy of errors, the universe conspiring against us: the first day, a Sunday, we brought the wood home as the sunlight faded. On Mondays I teach a late class at university and my husband picks up the kids from school. There was no way for him to take care of the children and run the sukkah on his own – besides, as a Muslim, it was all foreign to him.
The next day it rained.
On Wednesday I took the drill outside to finally get started. But the bit continued to fall.
My ancestors had no exercises when they left Egypt and spent 40 years wandering the desert, erecting the temporary houses hence the feast, Sukkot – huts or cabins – takes its name.
Imagining an ancient Hebrew, I took a hammer and some gigantic nails and hammered a foundation. I didn’t need a husband. I didn’t need a drill. I’m a Hebrew: hear me roar!
When the time came, however, to put the corner posts in place, I realized I couldn’t manage to hold a two-by-three-inch piece of wood upright, secure a nail, and hammer it in. to the foundation all at once. I needed another pair of hands.
The message did not escape me: Hebrew or not, no one can build a home, even temporary, alone.
And in the days that followed, I would learn something else: perfection is not the goal of observing religious traditions, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Rather, observance is about giving children – and ourselves – something to cherish, something that will stay long after the vacation itself is over, something that will stay in our hearts forever.
On Thursday, I begged my husband to leave work early so we could finally take care of this damn thing. He did it and guess what? When we got out we found the battery-powered drill that worked great on Wednesday was dead.
The sukkah would have to wait at least another day. But the next day was Friday, and Shabbat – when work is prohibited and that includes construction – would start at sunset.
And then it was Saturday. The foundation was ready. The drill was charged. My husband was at home. But I was in conflict. On the one hand, it was still Shabbat. Two, should we even bother? Would it be some kind of transgression to raise our sukkah a whole week after most Jewish families have done so?
Even though I’m pretty secular – I drive on Shabbat, spend money, cook, use appliances, all the things that are prohibited by religious law – building a sukkah felt like stepping over line. So I wouldn’t touch the drill. I would rule my husband like he used the drill – just like my great-grandmother, who was an Orthodox Jew, had her grandchildren turn on the lights for her on the Sabbath (ironic, of course, that she used her grandchildren as Shabbat “goys” – no – Jews who do things prohibited by religious law – even though they were also Jews).
With a drill, the thing went up chik chak, in no time. Then we used a stapler to add walls made from old sheet metal. The only thing missing was the roof – s’chach or secach – which according to religious law must be made from natural materials that provide shade in the sun while being open enough so that the stars can be seen at night.
To give my husband a rest from his work and in the hope of finding palm leaves, I took the children to the beach. On the way back, we came across a palm leaf so massive it wouldn’t fit in my trunk. So I folded it in half and loaded it into the passenger seat, the slings hanging in the back, tickling my kids, causing my 5 year old daughter to laugh and exclaim as she and her brother had their own sukkah in the back seat of the car.
And then, as we walked down a posh street in my decidedly uncluttered Toyota Camry, I saw a perfect palm leaf in the middle of the street. I parked, checked traffic, and rushed out onto the road to catch it. As I carried him to the car, passers-by in polo shirts stared at me.
“Succot! I called them, by chance they were Jews.
I folded the palm leaf in half and stuffed it in the car, and my kids howled with laughter. This is what it is, I thought. “They’ll never forget that: the smell of palm leaves, the memory of their (crazy) meshuga mum loading them into the passenger seat.”
I realized that it is more important for them to have these rich sensory experiences than to be in tune with the schedule.
When we got home, I pulled the palm fronds out of the car as the kids ran past to tell my husband that they had had their personal sukkah in the back seat the whole way home. After dragging the huge leaves out onto the patio, I climbed on a stepladder and placed them on the pine beams. A perfect fit. We were done.
That night we had dinner in our sukkah, as we are supposed to do throughout the holidays. The hut reminded my Palestinian husband of the kind that his grandfather – who had been a farmer – had built in the fields to protect himself from the midday sun. Walls swollen by the wind, like expanding lungs. I breathed with them and slipped into the calm that pervaded us all. It was magical.
“Can we eat in our hut tomorrow night too?” My son asked as we cleaned the dishes.
“Yes,” I said, already wistful that the vacation was only a week long. But this is the purpose of Sukkot – among the many lessons integrated into the holidays, the the temporary nature of the structure is a powerful reminder from the fact that we are just going through this life.
Like that first night, the days that followed were magical. While it rained most of last week – the official Sukkot week – the skies were miraculously clear this week for our family celebration of the holiday. It was like a sign from God Himself that observing the holidays a week late was OK. Yet I felt that very Jewish twinge of guilt. Maybe we shouldn’t have done this at all? Is it better to skip the holidays altogether than to skip it a week late?
I began to ask the rabbis for answers. At first, I was not able to obtain any because, respecting the Jewish calendar itself, they observed chemini atzeret and sim’hat torah, the holidays that come immediately after Sukkot. I then felt how getting off the calendar got me out of sync with the community, and I wondered about the value of adherence when we were doing it alone.
Nervous about confessing my transgression, I called Rabbi Benny Zippel in Salt Lake City. I prefaced my questions for him by babbling about having wood late and being busy and the rain and our dead drill and how I couldn’t get the sukkah on my own. But explaining it all only made me feel more ridiculous and worried that I had indeed committed some sort of serious sin. With a stone in my stomach, I finally asked what was worse: not doing Sukkot at all or doing it a week late?
“Not doing it at all is worse,” Rabbi Zippel said. “Doing it at the wrong time is a step in the right direction. ”
I told him how guilty I felt. “One word that you have to get rid of from your system, from your DNA: guilty,” he said. “People who feel guilty end up despising and hating and getting rid of what causes the guilt.”
Unwittingly, I broached the theme of his Yom Kippur sermon, he added. “Why does the Jewish calendar place Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) after Rosh Hashanah (the New Year)? ” He asked. Why do we start the New Year and then say, “By the way, God, I’m sorry for all the sins I’ve committed? In the business world, you first take an inventory – after that you start the new year. We (the Jews) are doing it backwards, ”he said.
I took a bite of the hook. “Why?”
“Because if we started by trying to atone for all the things we feel guilty about, we would never get past that.” ”
Rabbi Zippel continued, “First, resolve to move forward, then say, ‘As I move forward, there are a few things that need to be worked out.’ Decide to make things better in the future. … Make a resolution, so that Chanukah is not ready on time but early, days in advance.
Feeling relaxed, I told Rabbi Zippel that Sukkot is my favorite holiday because it connects me to how God planned the ancient Hebrews on their journey, because of the smallness and humility that i feel when i sit in my hut. How peaceful I feel contemplating my brief stay on this earth, my mortality.
“That’s exactly what he’s supposed to do,” he replied. “The whole idea of the sukkah is that it is supposed to have a fragile roof to remind us of our vulnerability, our fragility, how fragile our lives are, how dependent we are on Hashem (God). This year, with COVID, it takes on special meaning – COVID in one form or another makes us realize how fragile we are. We are not invincible.
Maybe that’s why we need to pass things on to our children, even if we do it late. We will not last. But, hopefully, what we give them will.