November 17, 2019

Everything but the Dust: The Case for Sukkot

You don’t get to choose how people remember you, and sometimes you learn something new about yourself when you find out how they did. For example, a few weeks ago, at a gathering for my birthday, my old college roommate — someone I’ve traveled to foreign countries with — told my cousin, whom he was meeting her for the first time, that I was always cooking hot dogs when we lived together. It doesn’t seem idiosyncratic when you’re the one doing it, and of course at the time it was perfectly rational. Hot dogs were the only kosher meat at the nearest grocery. 

During my last Shabbat in Madison, Wis., the Chabad rabbi, whose family had hosted me countless Friday nights over the two years I lived there, told me that he would always associate me with Sukkot. Rain or shine, I stopped by the Chabad sukkah every day after work to nosh on Oreos and guacamole with Rabbi Mendel and his kids. I never stayed more than 15 minutes, but always showed up to embrace the blessing Leshev BaSukkah (to sit in the sukkah). 

What is it with me and Sukkot? 

I love being outside, in the shade on a sunny day, even with the flies. My parents’ sukkah is big and beautiful and it hosts as many as 20 people in the gentle glow of its suspended lanterns.

I love the festival’s themes of hospitality, environmentalism and shelter; core values of Judaism year-round that achieve ritual importance during this holiday, even taking on a mystical character. I love the arba minim (four species) and the bizarrely pagan-looking and sounding hoshanot. I love getting my steps in, in shul.

But more than that, it is a monument to our family’s divinely embarrassing aesthetic idiosyncrasies decked out with wooden monsters hanging from the schach, and I love that. 

I love the festival’s themes of hospitality, environmentalism and shelter; core values of Judaism year-round that achieve ritual importance during this holiday, even taking on a mystical character. I love the arba minim (four species) and the bizarrely pagan-looking and sounding hoshanot. I love getting my steps in, in shul. And I love — really, truly love — all the paper chains.

What I have come to appreciate about Sukkot most recently, though, is its pick-me-up timing after a period of anxiety, physical stress and strenuous introspection. During the Ten Days of Repentance, we are reminded that we come from dust and to dust we shall return. The value of beginning each year by making ourselves feel small — viewing ourselves with respect to an infinitely expanding universe and an endlessly unraveling timeline — is enduring and unimpeachable. It’s also bleak.

But Sukkot comes to puncture our fatalism. It hits all the right notes — warmth, rejuvenation, palm fronds with purpose — to clear out the lingering High Holy Days’ austerity. But the genius of Sukkot is that it makes an epic counterpoint to Yom Kippur’s gloomy conception of transience by dialing it up to an extreme. 

The Festival of Booths is a monument to the ephemeral. In the span of a week, we build, inhabit and dismantle intentionally flimsy structures. While the rest of the year our ritual objects are animal products dried out and preserved — the cowhide tefillin, the ram’s horn shofar, the klaf of a Torah scroll — Sukkot’s holy toys are necessarily perishable. The willow wilts, the lulav frays and the etrog loses its luster. Dust to dust, redux. How can we call this week, which doubles down on a theme of Judaism’s most solemn day, Zaman Simchateinu, the time of our elation?

Sukkot comes to puncture our fatalism. It hits all the right notes — warmth, rejuvenation, palm fronds with purpose — to clear out the lingering High Holy Days’ austerity. But the genius of Sukkot is that it makes an epic counterpoint to Yom Kippur’s gloomy conception of transience by dialing it up to an extreme. 

Because the revelation of Sukkot is what happens while the tent is up. That we care about building our sukkah to code; mastering arcane architectural guidelines prescribed in the Talmud and its commentaries should reflect our desire to build lives that are up to code — not in spite of our life’s time constraint but because of it. We emphasize hospitality during this holiday because we can involve and inspire and help others through our own search for meaning. There’s joy, plenty of it, in the hunt. Especially when we’re looking together.

A few weeks ago, I began writing this column, setting in motion my own two-week cycle of dust to dust. I scrape together an idea. I file, it comes out and then it disappears, pretty much, forever. The Yom Kippur worldview is a healthy dose of humility. Even readers who enjoyed the story have already forgotten the author. 

And so it is with Sukkot. A few days after the holiday, we tack more optimistically. Sukkot reminds us that life is everything but the dust, and that’s a precious lot. 

Two things can be true. We enter and exit this world the same way, and each of us leaves a trace. We make impressions on people, more than we know, and we rarely learn what they are. 


Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles. He’s on Twitter at @thislouis.