Sukkot a celebration of life’s impermanence

Sukkot is a little kid’s dream. For the week-long Jewish holiday, which starts tonight and whose name means “huts,” Jewish families build rustic, temporary huts in their backyards and on their porches. Families invite guests and relatives for meals in the sukkah, the hut. Some families even sleep in the sukkah. The experience recalls the Israelites’ solidarity — and in Jewish tradition, God’s loving generosity as He kept watch — while the Israelites lived in huts, journeying through the desert, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the “promised land” of Israel.

Every year of my childhood, my father and I built the sukkah together. We built a frame of metal poles and hung a tarpaulin for walls. We moved in the dinner table. We constructed the traditional roof: branches and leaves, ample enough to shelter from a drizzle but bare enough to let in sunlight. My sister and I ran around the sukkah hanging decorations: dried corn cobs and squashes, plastic grapes, miniature pumpkins — all harvest-themed, as Sukkot capped the harvest season in ancient Israel.

As night came, my family gathered in the sukkah for dinner. My parents chanted the blessings over the wine and the challah bread. My mother brought out the matzo ball soup and home-cooked chicken. We talked about my school and my sister’s school, our parents’ jobs and our friends. We gave thanks for the year that passed and wondered about the year to come, voicing our concerns, our plans, our hopes.

Time paused. Inside the sukkah was an entire universe — a whole creation, sized perfectly snug.

Sukkot is a fascinating conclusion to the autumnal Jewish holiday season of Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These days underscore humanity’s smallness. In one prayer, Jews chant: “As stone in the hand of the mason, to be broken or preserved as he wishes, are we in Your hand.” Another hymn proclaims: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed … who shall live and who shall die … who by fire and who by water … who shall rest and who shall wander.”

This Jewish tradition — that God inscribes and seals our fates in the Book of Life — presents an idea that one need not believe literally to take seriously. The meaning is universal: Life has a strange way of wrenching us from our places.

Mortality is real. I did not understand that fully — or more fully — until people close to me confronted it.

Then there are all the quiet uprootings of life: friends who change; relationships that sour; a college student’s feeling, as he visits his high school, that he no longer belongs where once he did.

One idea is that if we live free of mortal danger, we ought not to complain about comparatively small problems. But our little problems are not chiefly little problems. They are chiefly our problems. They are real to us. In an uncanny world without clear answers, that is legitimacy enough. I don’t know whether this is good news or bad news.

Life’s gnarled twists do sometimes answer to moral justice — even to divine moral justice, depending on your beliefs. But too often, they resemble the whims and “wishes” of “the hand of the mason.” The blend of these two phenomena is startling.

Hope, too, abounds during the High Holy Days. The aforementioned hymn concludes: “But repentance, prayer and charity can annul the severity of the decree.”

Still, Yom Kippur unsettles what we take for granted. It reminds us how little control we have over the places, materials and time of our lives. And by calling us to account for our deeds, Yom Kippur suggests that amid cosmic volatility, what we most own is who we are and how we respond to what we face.

Linking this rawness with Sukkot’s joy is the ritual confession, “We have sinned against You with astonished hearts.” The verse is mysterious. Some interpret “astonished” to mean dismayed, or astonished at dire straits, suggesting that giving up is a sin of its own. Again, I don’t know whether that is good news or bad news.

But I do know that during a meal in the sukkah, we accept that we are but stone in the hand of the mason, and we still celebrate. We control so little of what faces us. But this hut will come down in a week anyway. Time will pass and draw us back into labyrinthine “real world” errands. But for one meal, canvas walls shut out thoughts of that world. With family and friends, in the simple trust among people who know you well and care about you earnestly (and vice versa), during a great meal, under a pine branch roof — this temporary hut begins to feel like a permanent home — or as permanent as homes can be.

Biblical verses detailing Sukkot describe not merely eating, nor sleeping, but “dwelling” in the sukkah. From this source comes the idea that during the holiday, the sukkah becomes the real home. The house is but temporary.

After Sukkot, dwelling in a house full of stuff is OK. Judaism is not ascetic. But Sukkot reminds one that the elements of dwelling — meals, an ad hoc roof, family, friends and times — are impermanent. What we consider permanent, like houses and cars, are even less than impermanent. They are window dressing.

In one of Judaism’s images of Messianic times, all the world gathers in a sukkah. The prophets envision not permanent security, but fleeting joy extended indefinitely — not a permanent palace, but a temporary hut that lasts forever.

That vision can become reality on Earth once a year — at least.

Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. He is a regular columnist for the News.

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