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Sukkot as Holistic Religious Experience; Or How I Stopped Being a Sukkah Snob

by Rabbi Steven Wernick

I used to be a sukkah snob.

What this means is that for many years, the prospect of having a sukkah was all about the wood. If it wasn't made of wood, it wasn't any sukkah I wanted to build, let alone dwell in.

“They didn't have metal in the wilderness,” I explained to my wife as I manfully laid out my power tools in the backyard, next to a serious pile of lumber. “And what's with the fabric and the plastic panels popping up in everyone's backyard? Do you think the children of Israel schlepped around laminated canvas with the names of the ushpizin printed on the fabric? Sukkot is all about the wood. Nothing ersatz for me. If the Israelites could build it without Sukkahs.com, then so can I!”

My wife would listen patiently and then go into the house, rolling her eyes.

The problem, of course, is that I was never very good with power tools.

I was basing my belief on childhood memories of the marvelous sukkah we had in our backyard. It was a marvel in wood. All who visited admired it. It was a monument to the truest essence of the holiday – the ultimate, I thought, in observance.

But it was built, in fact, not by my abba the rabbi, but by the maintenance staff at his kehilla.

Most rabbis' children of my generation have the same memories of proudly hosting scores of members of the kehilla, accepting compliments on behalf of the spacious wooden sukkah their dads (in those days, only dads) did not construct.

I especially recall our sukkah in Winnipeg, Canada, surrounded by snow. My father was the rabbi of Shaaray Tzedek when I was in middle and high school, so this snow-surrounded sukkah was the most memorable of my childhood.

That sukkah had integrity. Gravitas. Good bones. It was the spiritual heir to the hastily constructed huts built by the Israelites in the desert on their journey from slavery to freedom.

But building a sukkah myself was an adventure. Or misadventure. I would lug the lumber to the backyard and line up all the screws. I would fetch my cache of power tools. It was the power tools that tripped me up every time. Though I started with high hopes and the best of intentions, there was the inevitable call to my neighbor down the street who was a pro with things that buzzed and whirred and sawed and made holes. Maybe it was because he was a surgeon.

“I screwed it up,” I would confess, drenched in sweat. “Again.”

“I'm coming over,” he replied, already on his way, having heard through the grapevine that I was attempting yet another sukkah-raising.

Last time I pulled out the sukkah wood from our garage I was astonished but not entirely disappointed to discover that it had rotted.

My wife proclaimed the word I had avoided for my entire adult life: prefab.

After so many failed attempts at solo sukkah construction, there was no argument left in me. The power tools are now located somewhere in the garage (or wherever) hidden underneath old lawn furniture. They are baiting me, but I resist. The wood is history.

The sukkah we now have takes less than 15 minutes to construct. And I can do it entirely without the help of my neighbor.

In retrospect, I see my attempt at DIY sukkah building as stemming from a wish to maximize on the meaning of the holiday, drawing on its character as perhaps the most holistic expression of Jewish belief and tradition.

Sukkot is my favorite holiday. Its tactile nature puts me in touch with something enduring and elemental, linking me to everything I love about Judaism and life itself.

More than any other Jewish festival, Sukkot is a full contact holiday, a holiday rich with observances that culminate with entering into a designated sacred space.

Sukkot has ritual objects that shake, rattle and roll. They have delightful smells and distinctive textures. Sukkot mandates that we channel our inner interior decorator, indulging in the quest to beautify our temporary abodes. Sukkot mandates hospitality, providing us with a set invitation list, the ushpizin. In the Ashkenazic tradition they are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.

Sukkot mandates that we admire God's handiwork in the natural world, requiring that our sukkot have roofs through which the stars are visible.

How better to praise God than to stand underneath the canopy He erected for humankind, His sukkat shalom?

Above all, Sukkot is about immersion Judaism. For seven days, we are immersed in sensory indulgence. If no study has been done that examines how Sukkot encourages family bonding, I recommend that one be done immediately.

There is a Hasidic teaching that the Yamim Nora'im, the high holidays, require the participation of the entire human body: Rosh Hashanah is the head, wherein the process of teshuva begins. Yom Kippur is the beating heart, and the fasting that afflicts it. Sukkot is the hands, which hold and shake the lulav. Simchat Torah is feet, which walk in hakafot.

For seven days every autumn, Jews enter into sacred space that is not detached from the world but is the world.

Sukkot awakens our understanding of the very concept of God as HaMakom, the force that is space, that is the world around us.

Chag sameach.

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

 
 
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