Not long ago, Ron and I were in the final stages of home reconstruction. After months of agonizing trips to Home Depot, the house was nearly at completion. Each step of the redo was a process in and of itself. Who would have known that there are over 100 shades of off-white?At last, at last, there was only one more hurdle to jump. The Los Angeles Building Inspector had to approve the construction and provide permits. When he finished his report, I was shocked to see the dreaded words, “Denied.”I looked at the paperwork in dismay. Here’s what I found:
I thought for a few minutes, and then it hit me: Holes in the roof, unstable walls, structure not suitable for a permanent dwelling, easily collapsibleâ€¦ The building inspector hadn’t examined my house. He had examined my Sukkah!
At the bottom of the report was a note informing me I had a week to remove it from the premises. “Well,” I thought to myself, “As Sukkot is a week long Festival, I have time to make the best of this structure before taking it down.” Now there is a tradition of inviting special guests, or in Hebrew, ushpizin, for a meal in the Sukkah. I thought it would be fun to host an eclectic mix of community leaders. So I sent out “computer E-vites” and eagerly awaited responses. Imagine my delight when Moses, Tzipporah, Jonah, and Maimonides all RSVP’ed that they could attend! It would certainly be a Festival to remember.
Preparations finished, the big night arrived. The doorbell rang, and I went to greet my first guest. Before me stood a young man whose Mohawk rose at least six inches above his head. There were multiple piercings, and his leather coat smelled like oil. Whale oil. “Yo Rabbi,” he said, “I’m Jonah. I really didn’t want to come. I’m not into authority figures and all that. But I had nothing better to do.” (1) Jonah walked right past my outstretched hand and went straight to my fish tank. He just sat and stared at the water.
The door still open, three people then appeared at the entry, two men and a woman. The men were arguing about the placement of my Mezuzah. The woman looked annoyed. One man then extended his hand and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Rabbi Moishe ben Maiman, but you can call me Maimonides. How kind of you to open your home.”
The other man had a large backpack and a sleeping bag beneath his arm. “Shalom, I’m Moses.” He came close and whispered in my ear, “This is my wife, Tzipporah. She’s not Jewish. Is that ok?”
Tzipporah rolled her eyes and gave me a warm hello. All three came inside. Moses threw his belongings onto the floor, and Maimonides went straight out the back door and into the Sukkah.
“Moses,” I asked, “Uhâ€¦ what’s the sleeping bag for?”
“Oh, I’m spending the week here,” he answered.
“Excuse me?” I responded.
“Well,” Moses began, “According to what God told me, we are commanded to live in the Sukkah during this Harvest Festival.(2) It’s to remember what the ancestors went through when they crossed the desert. All these commandments! As if Pharaoh’s laws weren’t tough enough. So I figured, if it’s going to last a week, I may as well be as comfortable as possible!” He took out some palm branches, willows, pumpkins, and other assorted harvest-related offerings. “Don’t worry,” Moses went on as he arranged his belongings, “You won’t even know we’re here.”
I stared at Moses with my mouth open.
Tzipporah then spoke up, “I don’t think ‘the ancestors’ were all that interested in grass huts, Moses. And what about theses palm branches? Do you really think they had an abundant vegetation out there in the middle of the desert?”
Moses looked up, “You know, I never really thought of that!” Then he looked at me, “Tzipporah is the more intellectually honest of the two of us. Her father, Yethro, is an international consultant. (3)She grew up learning how to mediate in the toughest of situations. And she’s a great mother. Ironically, she’s the one who makes sure our son gets a good Jewish upbringing.”(4)
I looked over to Jonah, who was still staring at the fish.
Maimonides then re-entered the room with a perplexed look on his face. “Rabbi,” I asked, “Is something wrong?”
Maimonides looked at me and said, “Well, I hate to tell you this, but someone has toâ€¦ Your Sukkah, it’s not kosher.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, according to my authoritative Talmudic code, the Mishna Torah, the Sukkah can not be placed beneath a tree because you must be able to see the sky through its roof. Yet yours is too close to that big Oak, and its braches are blocking the view. The Mishna Torahforbids anything that smells offensive to hang in the Sukkah, but I think I saw a squash so old that it was growing a tail. And the schach, the covering for the Sukkah, it’s supposed to be made of organic material, not a tarp from L.L. Bean.” (5)
I thought to myself, “Oy vey,Maimonides should get a job with the Los Angeles department of Building and Safety.”
Moses spoke up, “C’mon, Maimonides, what are you talking about? All God told me back in the desert was to observe the festival for seven days and build a little hut to live in. Where do you get all these laws from?”
“Moses,” Maimonides went on, “outside of Israel we observe the Festival for eight days, not seven. Why? Because we want to build a fence around the Torah, (6) to protect the law, to make sure we get it right. You never know if your watch stops and we miss the ordained time of rejoicing. And you’re not supposed to physically live in the Sukkah. Now that is a hardship.”
Moses looked exasperated. “My atomic watch keep precise time, thank you. There’s no need to observe eight days anymore! And you talk of rejoicing? You’ve got to be kidding! How can we rejoice with all these restrictions? Further,” Moses gasped, “The Torah specifically commands us to live in the Sukkah! How can we deny that?”
“You think you’re the only one who has a relationship with God, don’t you?” Maimonides shot back, ” Listen, my friend, the truth is that no one understands God’s intentions better than I do. Look at all this stuff you brought. For heaven’s sake! We’re supposed enjoy the Sukkah by having a meal in it, by decorating it, by studying in it. But living in it is not what God intended.”
Moses just looked at Maimonides with disbelief. He then said to Tzipporah, “And I suppose he’s going to tell us next that cheeseburgers aren’t kosher?!”
For the first time, Jonah spoke up, “Do you all realize how ridiculous you sound? Who cares if God wants us to live or eat or study in the Sukkah? It’s all nonsense. Why should we have to live according to these rules anyway? God told me just the other day to go to Niniveh to deliver a motivational speech. You know what I did instead? I went on a cruise. Ok, ok, it didn’t end up quite as nice as I thought it would. I never expected to be swallowed by a fish. But we can’t go around just blindly following these voices we hear.”
Jonah looked at Moses and said, “Don’t you ever think that maybe, just maybe, you misinterpreted some of the things that God said to you? Judaism isn’t only about what comes down to you from above. Judaism is about how to deal with people on this earth. There’s a lot you can learn from Tzipporah.”
“And before you get too high on yourself, Maimonides,” Jonah continued, “Your ‘definitive’ code of law has room for improvement as well. Other voices have a right to be heard.(7) The two of you spend so much time spewing off hot air that you can’t even hear what you are saying. Why don’t you just be quiet and listen for a change.” (8)
Moses retorted, “Jonah, it’s ok to question, but we can’t run away. We have to face and even challenge the tradition. We can’t just pretend the traditions don’t exist.”
The room grew silent. My four guests all stared at me, and I had no idea what to do.
Just then, we heard a voice sobbing from outside. I opened the door to find a young man, probably no more than twenty years old, dressed in colorful rags and quite emaciated. “Can I help you,” I asked as I led him inside.
“My name is Joseph,” he said. “My family, my eleven brothers and sister, have abandoned me, and I have nowhere to go. I was looking at your Sukkah from the backyard and thought that yours might be a home that provides shelter. I’m a good worker and can help you to build anew from the inside out.” (9)
I looked into this poor boy’s eyes and I saw that his heart was filled with hope and dreams. I then looked to Moses, Tzipporah, and Maimonides. Here we were arguing over the structure of the Sukkah and the laws of Sukkot. Yet we had ignored what belongs at the heart of the Festival. Sukkot is about building order into a world filled with chaos. It’s about a communal journey to strengthen ourselves as individuals and as a people.
Our Sukkah is physically open to the outside world, making it impossible to ignore those without shelter. Sukkot reminds us to give structure to our lives, but not a structure so permanent that we can’t question it. While on Yom Kippur, we put ourselves in God’s hands, during Sukkot we take the world into our own hands. And while on Yom Kippur we tear ourselves down, on Sukkot we begin to build once again.
I set an extra seat around my Sukkot dinner table, and the five of us enjoyed a true Festival meal.
And when they left, I watched as their images blended into the endless mysteries of time. I watched and I thought to myself, “Next year I’ll keep it simple.”
As we read in Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, “There is a time to break down and a time to build up.” (10) Friends, our world has seen enough of breaking down. Yom Kippur in and of itself is about breaking down. Let’s come together to build up, to reach out, to embrace the spirit of Sukkot, and to breathe new life into old rituals. Let us work toward a true “Sukkat Shalom,” a shelter of peace and of wholeness.
You see, Sukkot is only partially about building a structure. The true meaning is about building a community. One person at a time.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon.
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A leading roof and rotting walls … likely to collapse during an earthquake
It is at Sukkot that the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, is dedicated. RABBI ROBERT JACOBS of Bet David looks forward to Succot and Simchat Torah
RABBI ROBERT JACOBS talks about Judaism and the notion of a linear time. PLUS: Some of the rituals around the High Holy Days.