This week is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, also known as the “Festival of Booths.” One of the hallmarks of this holiday is the commandment to build a sukkah, and eat all meals in it.
A sukkah is a little hut. It is required to have at least 3 walls and the roof must be made from natural materials, such as leaves or branches. There are no doors on a sukkah — its entrance is left open for visitors. It has no foundation, nothing to ground it into the earth. The entire thing can come down at the whim of a gust of strong wind.
The temporal nature of the sukkah is reminiscent of the tents built by the Jewish people as they travelled through the desert. At each stop, they erected a camp and then took it down as they travelled on. They had no permanent home; they were pilgrims, wandering through the barren lands.
The original nomads.
Sitting in Insecurity
Sitting in the sukkah, seeing the stars through the breaks in the roof, feeling and hearing nature surrounding us, reminds us of the temporal and fragile nature of life itself. In the sukkah, we are vulnerable to the elements and to would-be tresspassers.
This is the point of Sukkot: to remind us that everything in life is impermanent, that nothing lasts forever.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that
Sukkot is the festival of insecurity. It is the candid acknowledgement that there is no life without risk, yet we can face the future without fear when we know we are not alone.
Rabbi Sacks explains that the point of sukkot is to rejoice in this insecurity.
It seems like a paradox. How can we rejoince in insecurity?
The Sukkah’s Foundation
Sukkot this year comes as I mark 13 months of my experiment and adventure in living “home-free.” Over the past year, I have had moments where I wasn’t sure where I’d sleep that night, and times when I didn’t know how long I’d be in a place. And so I feel as though I’ve gotten a taste of what my Jewish ancestors felt in their wandering through the desert.
One thing I’ve learned is that although a sukkah may be fragile and leave us vulnerable, it does have a foundation, albeit one that we cannot see.
That foundation is faith.
As Rabbi Sacks writes,
Security is not something we can achieve physically but it is something we can acquire mentall,y psychologically, and spiritually. All it needs is the courage and willingness to sit under the shadow of God’s sheltering wings.
The real danger to our beings does not come from outer elements and strangers, but from the voices of fear and doubt within us. The anxiety creeping up. Wondering how things will get done, how they will work out, will we have enough — food, money, shelter.
What quiets these voices of fear is faith.
The truth is that stability is a myth. Everything is always changing. Your comfortable job may be outsourced tomorrow. We’ve all seen images on the news of houses turned to ash by wildfires or to rubble by hurricanes and flooding. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Not your next breath and not your illusion of stability.
The only foundation we can rely on is the foundation of faith: the knowledge that we are divinely guided in our best interests and divinely protected, even when we reside in fragile and impermanent structures.
When we can rest on our foundation of faith, then we can truly rejoice in the insecurity of life.
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Sukkot Machzor, Introduction, p. lxxxiii ↩