Now that all the festivals are behind us and the winter has started, we learn how to deal with the winter and its challenges – for no Torah-dictated festival occurs in the winter (Chanukah and Purim are rabbinical festivals instituted far later in our history).
It is especially Sukkot (the Festival of Tabernacles) that can teach us a great deal about the winter.
As is well known, the sukkah represents one’s lifespan in the world. For, what is a sukkah? It is a frail structure wherein we are required to dwell for seven days. Many commentators remind us that these seven days represent the human being’s average life span that is approximately seventy years. This is well stated by King David in Psalms: “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 the festival of Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth [day of] Assembly”, a separate festival immediately following the seven days of Sukkot).
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 in the sukkah, we feel protected and safe. However, once life exposes serious problems or turns against us, we realize how little protection we truly had and how unstable our lives really are. Like the sukkah, life is far less reliable than we had imagined.
Perplexing, however, is the fact that the festival of Sukkot is seen as the highlight of joy and happiness. Speaking specifically about Sukkot, 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 are to dwell in a structure that is far from secure!
In fact, Jewish law makes it crystal clear that the sukkah must be built in such a way that it is not able to stand up against a strong wind, that its roof must leak when it starts to rain.
These conditions should cause us distress since the sukkah seems rather to represent the vulnerability of man. Being the structure we move our entire lives into for seven days, the sukkah becomes our entire world, and, in fact, our live and existence. The new conditions of our existence should cause us distress, for our new world, the sukkah, emphasizes our vulnerability.
Why command us to be joyful, then, precisely when one is confronted with all that can go wrong with life?
Now, another question comes to mind. Since the sukkah teaches us about life’s handicaps, we would expect that Jewish law would also require the interior of the sukkah to reflect a similar message. As such, the sukkah should be empty of all elements of comfort. It should just contain some broken chairs, an old table and meager cutlery merely sufficient to eat one’s dry bread with.
However, Jewish law holds a great surprise. It requires that the sukkah’s interior reflect a most optimistic lifestyle. Its frail walls should be decorated with beautiful art, paintings and other decorations. The leaking roof, made from branches, 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 sukkah, if possible, to put a carpet on the ground, and have nice curtains hanging in its windows. One should eat from the most beautiful plates and use one’s best cutlery; the meals should be more elaborate, include delicacies and be accompanied by singing. All this seems to reflect a feeling that this world is a most pleasant place made for our enjoyment and recreation!
Why, then, sit in a frail hut?
The message could not be clearer: however much the outside walls and the leaking roof represent man’s vulnerability and uncertainty, once inside these walls one is to make one’s life as attractive as possible and enjoy its great benefits and blessings.
This message must not be lost on us. Instead of becoming depressed and losing faith in living after the great tragedies that befall us, we are to continue to approach life with the optimistic note conveyed to us by the beautiful interior of the sukkah.
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, and the dangers of Iran, for example, prove how vulnerable modern man really is and how shaken the outer walls of our “sukkah” are, and this make us very nervous.
However, 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 that surround us and simultaneously continue our lives with “song and the harp” is what makes humans great.
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 Shabbetai Zvi*, such speculations, however tempting, may cause a great backlash and tremendous harm. Instead, we should remain with our feet on the ground and ensure we live up to our moral and religious obligations – and enjoy life!
All our tragedies should encourage people to be more united and to show more sensitivity to each other’s needs. Tragedies should encourage Jew and gentile alike to build strong family ties and create, just as in the case of the interior décor of the sukkah, strong and pleasant homes full of warm colors and joy, make them cozy, hold family celebrations, play music, and sing songs, etc.
Tragedies should inspire people to go to synagogue and church and create strong communities, because these constitute significant “decorations” in our lifelong “sukkah.”
When winter begins and the coming months seem cold, dark and weary, we should recall our sukkah. While its walls and roof were unreliable and gloomy, its décor, contents and atmosphere were warm, optimistic, and uplifting.
Hence, let us enter the winter with our sukkah in mind and everything will look brighter.
Indeed, the walls of our worldly sukkah may be shaking, but let us not forget our obligation to decorate and glorify its interior.
Wishing you a great and joyful winter just like the sukkah!
* Shabbetai 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, proved that Shabbetai Zvi was indeed the Messiah. Consequently, they left the fold.