Sukkot: the beauty of fragility
Nine years ago, my wife and I returned home from lunch in a friend’s sukkah on the first day of Sukkot. The phone was ringing as we walked in, and since we’d only
just arrived in Los Angeles we didn’t have an answering machine set up yet. Since we don’t use the phone on Shabbat or holidays, I did nothing as it rang four, five, six times.
I had gone to lie down for a nap when the phone started to ring again. Figuring it was a persistent telemarketer, I rolled over and tried to ignore it. The phone stopped again after another five or six rings. But a few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time I was worried.
I answered the phone and on the other end of the line was my sister, an internist in San Jose.
“Grandma is in the hospital; she is really sick. You should come,” she said.
Since my sister deals in matters of life and death, I knew it was serious.
I don’t travel on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, so after I hung up the phone I walked a few short blocks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s home to discuss my options.
If I waited until the end of the first two days of the festival, and then Shabbat, which followed immediately thereafter, I would likely be too late. We decided that, although we observe the second day of Jewish festivals, since the second day of Sukkot has a different status according to Jewish law than the first day and Shabbat, when the first day of the festival ended that night I would take the last flight out of LAX.
When I arrived that night in San Jose, I went immediately to the hospital to visit my grandma Lillian (z”l), who was in a coma. I made arrangements to spend Shabbat in the hospital, in her room at her side, an intimacy that the stringencies of Jewish law gifted to me.
Friday night, I prayed Kabbalat Shabbat at her side and made Kiddush with her. The next morning I donned my tallit, prayed the morning prayers and studied the weekly portion to the rhythm of a ventilator and heart monitor.
That afternoon, after one of many visits to my grandma’s side, my mother, sister and I, along with other close relatives, walked away from her door toward the waiting room for a few minutes of relief. As we headed past the nurse’s station, a nurse called out, “She is fading — you should come quickly.”
We hustled back to the room. I knelt down, took out my siddur, and began to recite the Vidui — the Jewish deathbed confessional — and concluded with the Shema. Before I finished those words, she had died.
I am grateful for many things from that weekend. I am grateful for the guidance and compassion of a wise teacher and friend in Rabbi Dorff. I am grateful for the gift — as Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a teacher of mine, would describe it a few weeks later — of holding my grandmother’s hand as she slipped from this world into the next. And, as the years have gone by, I am even grateful that she died during this season, on the third day of Sukkot, for through her death she taught me the true essence of what it means to dwell in a sukkah.
Martha Nussbaum, author of a book titled, “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,” once wrote, “Part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability.”
Part of what gives this world its beauty, its goodness, is its vulnerability. Beauty in this world cannot be made invulnerable. We cannot be invulnerable, even though we try. We try so hard to protect ourselves, to protect our children. We build walls. We build strong, comfortable houses with roofs and heat for shelter and quiet. But we cannot be made invulnerable; we cannot keep ourselves safe and truly celebrate the beauty of this world.
On Sukkot, the time tradition tells us is zman simchateinu, the season of our joy, we dwell in a fragile hut, open to the winds and rain and cold of the world, to remind ourselves that our joy is enriched, is deepened, when we glimpse, if only for a moment, how weak and fragile we are.
Rabbi Israel Mayer HaCohen asked why it is that we celebrate Sukkot in autumn. Leviticus 23:42-3 teaches: “You shall live in booths seven days, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am Adonai your God.”
If Sukkot commemorates what God did after the Exodus from Egypt, let us celebrate Sukkot in the spring. Alternatively, if Sukkot commemorates the clouds of glory with which God sheltered us in the wilderness (as Rabbi Akiba argued in the Talmud), let us celebrate Sukkot in the summer when the clouds protected us most from the searing midday summer sun.
The Chafetz Chaim answers that we were not commanded to make Sukkot during the spring or summer because that was when most people would make sukkot for shade.
Instead, we make them specifically when the rainy season begins and the weather grows colder during the fall to remind others and ourselves that what we are doing is a mitzvah, a commandment from God. This mitzvah asks us to see and feel the world in all our weakness and vulnerability. The sukkah invites us to make our home amid the elements, to experience the chill of autumn, to get damp and wet and cold. After that we can feel the true joy of having lived another year in God’s beautiful world.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.