In the Still of the Night

Second Day of Sukkot
2009

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

My family never had a Sukkah when I was a child. It never occurred to my father or my grandfather to have a Sukkah at our home. We ate our meals, as usual, in the dining room. We were not in school on Sukkot. We were in synagogue on the first days of the holiday. We waved the lulav and etrog with the congregation, but we never had a Sukkah in our home.

Even when we were at the synagogue, we would have some cake and juice in the community Sukkah but we had lunch at home. When I was in the Boy Scouts, we built a Sukkah for the synagogue without using nails. We cut down trees ourselves and lashed them together. It was a work of art. When I was in USY, we got together again to build the Sukkah for the synagogue. That Sukkah was not a work of art, I felt good that it didn’t fall down but it came close a couple of times. But I never built a Sukkah at my home.

For my third year of Rabbinical School, I spent the year in Israel. I lived in student housing and we had a big Sukkah where all of us studentswould eat our meals. The weather was perfect in Israel for eating in a Sukkah. Not too cold and not too hot. Not too many bugs and the perfect atmosphere to sit and study and have a conversation after a meal.

While I was in Israel that year, we went on a tour of the farmland that surrounds Jerusalem. We were looking for Shomriot. A shomriah is a hut that is a temporary home for a family during the harvest season. It is usually a stone building with a flat roof. It is often under a huge shade tree. On hot nights, the family might sleep on the roof, going inside only if there is rain. Around the hut was a cleared area where the family could leave grapes in the sun to become raisins and to dry dates and figs. There was a cistern for water and a cooking area where dinner could be prepared. During the harvest, the family would move in so they could get an early start on the harvest each day. When the harvest was finished, they loaded up the produce, the raisins, figs and dates and moved back home. The shomriah would be empty again until the next harvest.

The Talmud notes that when most families were moving out of their Shomriot, Jews were moving into their Sukkot. A Sukkah was also meant to be a temporary home. But it was not for the purpose of bringing in the harvest. It could only be used once the harvest was over. A Sukkah could not be built under a tree, but had to be under the open sky. A Sukkah could not have a roof, it was only meant to be a shady spot, where there was more sun than shade inside by day, and one could look up and see stars by night.

All of this works fine in Israel, but not in the rest of the world. In Poland and Russia, it is already close to freezing at night and there can be terrible rainstorms at this season of the year. Here in Florida, it will not cool off for another two months and it can rain every day. In Minnesota it would snow on our Sukkah. In Australia, it is not even fall; it is right in the middle of spring. When hurricane Wilma threatened South Florida, we had to take our Sukkah down. Who knows how they will someday celebrate Sukkot on the moon or in space.

Sukkot is Israel’s holiday. Anyone can build a Sukkah in their yard or courtyard. Every major building has one on the side or on the roof. Ever restaurant has a Sukkah for patrons to eat in if they wish. One can buy a lulav and etrog almost everywhere and they are fresh, not delivered by some overnight carrier. People in Israel are happy to be in a Sukkah and they spend long hours into the night enjoying the cool night air. Sukkot is one of the best times to visit Israel.

A little girl was out walking one evening with her father. As they came to the top of the hill, the girl asked, “Daddy, how far can you see?” the father looked out to the horizon and said, “I guess I can see a couple of miles.” The girl said, “I can see millions and millions of miles.” Her father smiled and said, “Gee honey, how can you see so far?” The little girl pointed at the sky, I can see the stars and they are millions of miles away, look up Daddy and you can see them too!”

This is one of the lessons of the Sukkah. All year we live inside the four walls of our homes. We shut ourselves in and we shut out all of nature that we don’t want invading our homes. We tint our windows; install blinds to keep the sun out. We put locks on our doors for security. We make sure that rain cannot leak in our roof. All year long we can only look out our windows at the little bit of nature in our back yard or across the street.

On Sukkot, we learn to lift our vision higher. We look up through the roof and take in the stars. We can once again see for millions and millions of miles. We once again are a part of nature, not separate from it. We stop viewing the world that we have created for ourselves and we start seeing our place in the natural world again. Instead of seeing only what we have bought for ourselves, we can set our gaze up to the heavens and once again dare to dream of the stars. No matter how discouraged or closed in we may feel, if we can lift our eyes to the stars, we can let ourselves become inspired again.

On Sukkot we invite God to join us in our Sukkah, to make it a sukkat shalom, a Sukkah of peace. There is an ancient tradition that each night of Sukkot, we invite heavenly guests to join our earthly guests in the Sukkah. We invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David into our Sukkot. Each one blesses us with their presence. These heavenly guests make our Sukkah a holy space. One that reminds us of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that our ancestors built in the wilderness. It was there that our ancestors contemplated God. We should do no less when we are in our Sukkah as well.

How do we respond to the holiness of the Sukkah, to the wonder and beauty of nature and to the grandeur of the stars? What are we supposed to say when we leave the comfort of our homes to once again become a part of nature? How do we show our gratitude to God for wonders of this world in which we live? In Judaism, to show appreciation, we recite a blessing.

On Sukkot we have the blessing of the lulav and etrog that we recite each day as we take them up to wave them in the synagogue. There is the blessing for sitting in the Sukkah. It is not enough to just pass through a Sukkah; we have to sit and spend some time contemplating our surroundings, and then say a blessing for sitting. We can say a blessing over the foods that we eat in the Sukkah. Some say that there is a special merit of saying the blessing for lulav and etrog in the Sukkah, bringing these two important symbols of the holiday together.

But in my mind, the most important blessing we can say in the Sukkah is the blessing that we have come again to this season of the year, that winter may be coming soon, but we are grateful and thankful that we are blessed with food, clothing and shelter to protect us from any force of nature. We recite on Sukkot the Shehechiyanu, the prayer that thanks God for giving us another year to dwell in the Sukkah and contemplate again, our place in the universe. Thank you God for keeping us alive, sustaining us and bringing us again in peace to your sukkat shalom, your Sukkah of peace.

May there be peace in our homes, peace in our land and peace in Israel, our homeland and may each of us dwell in our own Sukkot with no one to make us afraid.

Amen and Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

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