When contemplating the festival of Succoth, we are confronted with a remarkable paradox.
As is well known, the Succah visualizes our life span in the world. For what is a Succah? It is a frail structure which we need to dwell in for seven days. Many commentators remind us that these seven days represent man’s average life span which is about seventy years. This is well stated by King David when he wrote: “The span of his years are seventy and with strength eighty years”. (Tehilim 90:10) Indeed under favorable circumstances, we may prolong our stay in this world into our eighth day which is symbolized by Shemini Chag Atzereth, (a separate festival immediately following the seven days of Succoth).
Indeed how frail our life is! Not only short but also most unreliable. As long as we live under favorable and healthy circumstances, life is a pleasant experience and just like the Succah, it seems to protect us and we feel safe. But once life uncovers serious problems or turns against us, we realize how little protection it is really able to offer and how unstable our lives really are. Like the Succah it is far less reliable than we had imagined.
Perplexing however is the fact that the festival of Succoth is seen as the highlight of joy and happiness. Speaking specifically about Succoth, the Torah states: “And you shall be happy on your festival” (Devarim 16-14). This means that we should experience the most exalted form of happiness at a time when we have to dwell in a structure which is far from secure!
In fact Jewish law makes it utmost clear that the Succah must be built in such a way that it is not able to stand up against a strong wind, that its roof must be leaking when it starts to rain and that it must contain more shadow than sunlight. These conditions should make us feel distressed since the Succah seems to represent the vulnerability of man. So why command us to be joyful, precisely at the time when one is confronted with all that what can go wrong with life?
Here another question comes to mind. Since the Succah teaches us about life’s handicaps, we would expect that Jewish law would also require the interior of the Succah to reflect a similar message. As such the Succah should be empty of all comfort. It should just contain some broken chairs, an old table and some meager cutlery to eat one’s dry bread with.
However, Jewish law holds a great surprise. It requires that the Succah’s interior should reflect a most optimistic lifestyle. Its frail walls should be decorated with beautiful art, paintings and other decorations. The leaking roof, made from leaves or reeds, should be made to look attractive by hanging colorful fruits down from it. One is required to bring one's best furniture into the Succah, if possible to put a carpet on the ground, have nice curtains hanging in front of its windows. One should eat from the most beautiful plates and use one’s best cutlery. Meals should be more elaborate, including delicacies. Singing should accompany those meals. All this seems to reflect a feeling that this world is a most pleasant place made for our enjoyment and recreation!
So why sit in a frail hut simultaneously?
The message could not be clearer: however much the outside walls and the leaking roof reveal man’s vulnerability and uncertainty, inside these walls one needs to make one’s life as attractive as possible and enjoy its great benefits and blessings.
This should not be lost on us. Instead of becoming depressed and losing faith in life after the great tragedies which befall us, we should continue to approach life with the optimistic note which is conveyed to us by the beautiful interior of the Succah. True, the ongoing guerrilla attacks on Jews in the land of Israel and the collapse of the Twin Towers in the heart of the USA, which believed it could offer its citizens a great amount of security, proves how vulnerable modern man really is and how shaken the outer walls of his “Succah” are! But this should not hold us back from enjoying life as much as possible. To be happy when all is well is of no great significance. But to be fully aware of the dangers which surround us and simultaneously continue our lives with “song and harp” is what makes humans great and proud.
We would therefore do well to discourage people from speculating about “the end of days” or reading kabbalistic and other sources informing us that the messianic days are very close and that the wars preceding his coming are immanent. There is no way of knowing. Just as in the days of Shabbatai Zvi*, such speculations, however tempting, could cause a great backlash and do a lot of harm. Instead we should stay with our feet on the ground and make sure we live up to our moral and religious obligations.
All our tragedies should encourage people to be more united and to show more sensitivity to each others needs. It should encourage Jew and gentile to build strong family ties and create, just as in the case of the Succah, strong and pleasant homes. It should inspire people to go to synagogue and church and create strong communities, because these are some of the decorations in our lifelong Succah.
Indeed, the walls of our worldly Succah may be shaking, but let us not forget that we have an obligation to decorate its interior.
*Shabbatai Zvi was a self declared messiah who brought about a great upheaval in the European Jewish community in the seventeenth century. After it became clear that he was a fraud, many Jews no longer trusted the Jewish traditional sources which they believed were proving that Shabbatai Zvi was indeed the Messiah. Consequently they left the fold.