Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sukkot Is Jewish Camping Under the Stars

A requested repost from September, 2013. 

We are doing it here in Calabria and many of you are doing the same thing all over the world.  When my daughter was a little girl she always called this holiday Jewish camping.  For Jewish families, many of us will be “camping out” this coming week as we eat our meals under the little temporary huts called (and this is where the holiday gets its name) “Sukkot.”

So here’s the question. What is the only building that is authentically Jewish?  The only real, true Jewishly Jewish structure?  If our answer is “synagogue,” or even “temple,” then we’ve run into a problem.

Think about synagogues you’ve seen.  Some are built in the round, others are square. In the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv there is a synagogue display – tiny miniatures of synagogues from all over the world. There you can see Spanish synagogues designed in the Moorish style, western models that come from Germany and bold and experimental types from Australia and America.

Why all the different architectural forms? Because nowhere in the Torah or in any other of our holy books is there any explanation of just exactly what a synagogue should look like. 

So, if the answer to our question about the most Jewishly Jewish building is NOT the synagogue, then what is it.  What’s the most Jewishly Jewish building you could ever have? It’s the Sukkah.

In all of the Torah, the Sukkah is the only building we are told we absolutely must build.  And as far as buildings go, the sukkah is kind of strange.  For one thing we are told to build it so that you can see through the roof and look straight up to the stars.  That’s not all. The sukkah has to be made so that its sides aren’t very sturdy. Open space is gently corralled within its wispy walls.

The sukkah is a building, if you can even call it that – a building that, more than it separates us from the outside, a building that links us with the outside.  For eight days a year our sukkah makes us one with the great outdoors. 

Our sukkah calls us back to the time when we lived in the wilderness.  It is a building that reminds us how fragile and temporary all buildings really are -even those made out of bricks or cement. 

That’s why, once every year, we go out of our “permanent” buildings into our temporary shelters so that we get a hands-on experience with how fragile all life really is.  If you don’t believe that just talk to anyone who lost a home to the ravages of “Sandy” or the tsunami in Japan. 

As Jewish families build their sukkahs and spend time eating, maybe even sleeping in them, these little temporary huts seem to be saying to each of us …  don’t shut yourself off from the world outside.  Because the walls are wide open, our sukkah demands that we connect with each other. Our sukkah asks us to remember the words of our sages; “The closest that anyone on this earth ever gets to God is our relationships with other people.” 

So as we Calabresi enjoy our mountain top  sukkah, built beneath the “pergola,” the grape arbor where we regularly make our Shabbat Kiddush blessings, even we Italian B’nei Anousim, who are only now reclaiming our Jewish roots, understand that regardless of where we live, our homes and our hearts need wide open spaces. We need to remember that regardless of the structure, we live under roofs that are gentle and fragile, just like the roof of our sukkah.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot says to us that we need to stop for a moment and take time to look up.  It’s curious how, in shaky temporary lean-tos, we can feel God’s presence even more keenly.  And how important it is for us to know that when we sit in our ancient flimsy sukkah, it is here where we can truly see the stars.