Jewish Journal

Sukkot, Hurricanes, and the Fragility of Life

Sukkot is a time to embrace the interplay between joy and fragility, and hold these seemingly opposite truths, together all at once.

Within the shaky, leafy and leaky walls of the sukkah, we are commanded to cultivate and sustain tangible joy, and live with eyes wide open in a reality that is fundamentally unpredictable and unstable.

When I first read how one must leave room in the sukkah to see the sky and stars, and thus exposure to the rain and wind, I couldn’t help but think about hurricane season.

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma, a Category 3, hindered Sukkot celebrations in South Florida. On the sixth day of the festival, rabbis throughout the region advised congregants to take down their Sukkahs as they prepared for the storm.

In 2015, police in NYC had warned that Hurricane Joaquin was poised to tear off the roof for Jews observing Sukkot and to take precaution. Some sukkah’s toppled in the rain and wind, while others were dismantled in anticipation of the storm.

Because of Hurricane Nate, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, in partnership with the PJ Library, cancelled their Safari in the Sukkah event this Sunday, at the Audubon Zoo.

Hurricane Harvey, although it didn’t take place during sukkot, definitely made me think of the themes of the holiday. My friend, Rabbi Sarah Fort Sholklapper, is now the new Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston Texas. On Aug 27, the congregation was planning on hosting a Rabbi Roundup to welcome Sarah Texas style, with BBQ, Pony rides, dancing, and world champion roper games.

But as the old Yiddush proverb says, “We plan, God laughs.”

Sanctuary at Congregation Beth Yeshurun. Photo by: Rabbi Sarah Fort Sholklapper

Hurricane Harvey hit landfall on Aug 25. Congregation Beth Yeshurun’s permanent structure or spiritual home, was now just as vulnerable as the sukkah. Chumashim and siddurim were wet and warped from the brown, smelly water, that flooded the building. Mega fans were pumping air to get moisture out. Carpets and walls needed to be ripped up and replaced.

But amidst the devastation, I could see in Sarah’s Facebook updates, her joy as she witnessed the kindness and selflessness of the volunteers who came out in droves, packing offices, books, and museum pieces.  Historians helped lay out and dry thousands of drenched pictures and newspaper archives.

On the night Hurricane Irma hit Tampa, FL, my parents and grandparents sat in a dark, powerless apartment, as the wind howled in the background. Both my parents and I had not taken the storm seriously.

Originally predicted to directly hit Miami, the headlines quickly changed: “Hurricane Irma’s target shifts from Miami to Tampa, an area especially vulnerable to a major storm.” Irma sent the city into shock and pandemonium, including for those who had evacuated to Tampa from Miami.

Scores of people walk on the sand of Tampa Bay. Photo by: Luis Santana of Tampa Bay Times

My parents live directly off the Tampa Bay.  Just before the storm, the water got sucked back into the ocean, and people were riding bikes, and walking dogs, on the floor of the Bay. My dad said it was like Moses had parted the waters. Unfortunately, the prediction was that the water would come back with vengeance.

My parents and their two Labradors, evacuated to my grandparents assisted living. They sat in deep fear, after having seen the very real destruction of homes in Houston, and now Florida over the past several hours. But yet, there was this acceptance over the very real possibility that they would have to rebuild their lives, as well as the faith that they will be okay regardless.

That evening, we talked about Sukkot, and how the holiday teaches we must live with joy, open eyes, and integrity, as we navigate these fragile spaces in time. We must recognize and celebrate the blessings even when we’re in flux.

My mother was certainly joyous while on the phone. She told me about how our massive golden lab had bolted earlier during a walk around the lake, and did a canon ball into the pool of the independent living section. We joked about how regardless of the pool incident, their two labs were the most behaved out of everyone (including my parents and grandparents).

It was a blessing how Irma, predicted to be a category 3, turned into a category 1 just before it hit Tampa’s city boundaries.

As my parents headed back home, they drove right under a big rainbow. After all the doom and gloom, they arrived home, only to discover some branches in the yard, and that the electricity and AC weren’t working. Their joy, their sense of relief, was effervescent.

The transitory Sukkah reminds us that we are just travelers, spiritual beings in this impermanent material world.  The sukkah can be an internal metaphor, conveying we are ALL susceptible to the storms of the soul and floods of life, and like natural disasters, can change the course of ones life in a moment.  Sometimes we are flooded by the grief and shock of losing a loved one; perpetual fear of job insecurity; and an overwhelming sense of loneliness.  Some are trying to keep their head above water, as they battle depression. Some battle addiction.

Sukkot teaches that healthy joy is not an avoidance or denial of the fragility of life, but rather the opportunity to embrace and be grateful for what makes life worth living. A joy that all at once, knows of the tragic realities facing us, while embracing the reason to fight on and triumph.  May we all experience the joy and empowerment that comes through transcending our vulnerabilities, fears, and uncertainties.