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“Imitating Life Itself: The Brilliance of the Succah”

09/30/2023 07:08:23 PM


Peter H. Grumbacher – Interim Rabbi

“Imitating Life Itself: The Brilliance of the Succah” Succot/Shabbat - September 30, 2023 Peter H. Grumbacher – Interim Rabbi Temple Beth El – Newark, Delaware ______________________ At Beth Emeth we had one of the most beautiful Succot decorated with palm leaves and fruit, highlighted with the cutouts created by our religious school students. For a bit of color we added cranberries. More about that in a moment. The problem with our Succah was that it was indoors, but after a while we added another one just outside our social hall. That one was kosher while the inside succah was not, but to say it wasn’t as attractive is an understatement. Now what made it kosher was that a succah has to have walls that can withstand a steady wind. Sure our indoor succah could do that inasmuch as it was surrounded by the walls of the building itself, but it didn’t have three walls; it had four. There were large enough entrances on all four sides for people to fulfill the mitzvah of being inside the structure, but not one of the sides was completely open. But let’s forget the legitimacy of one over the other. There are other aspects of the Succot one Temple builds as opposed to another Temple. For example, at B’nai Jeshurun in New York, one has to go to their roof to share kiddush and a nosh under their succah, and as I and many, many others asked, “Where the heck did they send us? Where is their succah?” Well, the entire roof was the succah. It was literally the length, width and breadth of their huge roof. A succah isn’t allowed to have a solid roof; in most cases, it has palm branches covering it, and through the palm leaves covering the entire succah, you could see the stars. Thankfully when I worshipped there on only one occasion in my teens, the skies were clear. Back to the cranberries of the Beth Emeth indoor succah. As beautiful as this protected one was, there was one major problem. After a while the cranberries would start plopping right off the succah. Since we held our Succot services under the booth itself that meant that some unfortunate congregants would be hit with a cranberry or three. It didn’t rain on our parade as it would if we had celebrated out-of-doors, but it cranberried and, trust me, a dry cranberry can be painful if it hits the wrong spot on your head. It was one time my height paid-off. The distance from the cranberry to my scalp was minimal so it never gained the velocity to be particularly painful. As I said, the succah can’t have a solid roof, but as exotic as palm leaves are (in Hebrew called s’chach), and as attractive as they appear, they allow the elements to do what the elements do. Yes, it was expected that inclement weather would be around at least once during the week, and that was good, damp but good. How can you mirror life’s uncertainties if there’s a solid roof to prevent “raindrops from falling on your head”? The structure itself should be temporary, a shelter reflecting the shelters of our ancestors during the fall harvest. If you’ve ever been in Israel in the early fall, the sun might still be virtually unbearable in the fields; they couldn’t spend all day picking this fruit or vegetable without taking a breather in the shade. The booth in the field provided that shade, but the booth was as temporary as the harvest itself which is why the Succot of today have to be temporary. The point of the succah is to imitate what our ancestors dwelled in during the harvest even if but only a week, and to realize that we were Divinely protected from both the sun and from our enemies once we left Egypt. The structure represents life itself. Who knows when it will rain? Who knows how our homes will fare in inclement weather? Who knows how we will fare when the sun isn’t shining? I addressed this on Yom Kippur, but it’s a theme for Succot and has been for a long, long time. In fact, I’m sure you know through Purim and its accompanying Megillat Esther, all five of our Festivals have Megillot we are to read during their specific holiday. So just as we read Megillat Esther on Purim, we read Lamentations on Tish’a b’Av and Ruth on Shavuot. We read the Song of Songs on Passover, and on Succot, we read Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. There are some cynics who say there was one left over Megillah so we linked it with the one remaining festival, inasmuch as they’re not as obviously connected. Wrong! They are very connected…talking about the cynics who questioned it. In fact, Kohelet is the study in cynicism, a book, they say, was written by King Solomon towards the end of his life. Solomon is the supposed author of the Book of Proverbs, and the Song of Songs as well. They say that each of the three was tied to a stage in Solomon’s life. Song of Songs when he was young; Proverbs when he was seeking wisdom; and Kohelet, in his later years. We know that Solomon had the vigor of youth, and he was gifted the wisdom he asked of God, but despite his riches on all levels, like all mortals, when he was old there were so many questions he had. They say Solomon wrote Kohelet to highlight the vicissitudes of life, questions that flow freely because of life’s unknowns. For example, we find the familiar sentence which those who are Baby Boomers had a hard time believing it was biblical and not rock and roll, namely, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” And then the book tells us, “A time to be born, a time to die…a time to laugh, a time to weep…etc.” Yes, before Pete Seeger and then the Byrds recorded it a long, long time ago, it was found in the TaNaKh, our Bible, recorded a long, long, long, long time ago. And it’s amazing how the issues raised today are those raised in Kohelet. Lest we forget, the other symbols of this Festival have become emblematic of the human condition. The lulav and etrog, together known as the arba minim, the “Four Species,” are simply a palm branch which has a willow and a myrtle tied to it; and a citrin. They represent the bounty of the Land of Israel. But the sages took a good look at the arba minim and went a step further. The lulav represents the spine; the myrtle the eyes; the willow, the lips; the etrog, the heart. Together, say the rabbis of old, we are to think of their message…stand up proudly; see the beautiful and best in the world; speak with honor; and show compassion to your neighbor. What a great message! So that’s Succot in a nutshell. On so many levels it imitates life itself. The brilliance of the Succah is in its simplicity, but sometimes it’s the simple things that give meaning to our days.

Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784