Jewish Journal

Faith in the Ruins

A sukkah in Herzliya, Israel. Photo by Ron Almog

In the middle of a Sukkot dinner last week, a guest’s wandering dog got a little lost.

When my host, Elon Gold, squeezed through a sukkah side exit to retrieve the dog from a narrow alley, the whole structure quivered around us.

“Elon, the sukkah’s gonna collapse!” his wife, Sacha, cried, urging him to be more gentle.

I looked up as the Moroccan lamps dangled over the couscous and a prime collection of single-malt scotch. It’ll be a shame if those bottles are shattered, I thought.

Fortunately, the disturbance this caused was very minor. But the metaphor was big, echoing the core message of Sukkot: What shelters us is fragile. How easily things can fall apart.

It’s ironic that this is supposed to be a season of joy — our z’man simchateinu — a celebration of earthly bounty and heavenly blessing at a time so many are being inundated with pain, trauma and tragedy.

This isn’t a revelation for Jews. Sukkahs are supposed to be delicate, temporary dwellings, recalling the protective “cloud of glory” that God provided the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt as well as the booths they build for shelter. We build these booths to withstand a normal wind, but not a strong one. Only God is permanent, we’re told; our buildings and our bodies are ephemeral. 

I did not need reminding of this three days after a Las Vegas shooting massacre in which 58 people were murdered and more than 500 injured. I didn’t need reminding after Texans, Puerto Ricans and Barbudans saw their entire lives upended, their permanent homes decimated by the wrath of a storm. It’s no secret how vulnerable humans are to the forces of nature and the evils of our own darkest impulses — not to mention our terrible and chronic complacency in the face of horror.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observed that with every additional gun massacre we become less stunned, less shattered than we were from the previous massacre. The tragedy is no longer the tragedy; the tragedy is how inured we’ve become to “a culture of death” that grips us tighter with each new violent event. 

It’s ironic that this is supposed to be a season of joy — our z’man simchateinu — a celebration of earthly bounty and heavenly blessing at a time so many are being inundated with pain, trauma and tragedy. For God’s sake, why do so many Americans buy so many guns?

“I think a lot of Americans have guns because they’re fearful,” Noonan wrote. “They fear a coming chaos. … They think it’s all collapsing — our society, our culture, the baseline competence of our leadership class.”

For some of us, everything seems fragile while others appear well protected. But we survivors of history know that it could have been any of us in that concert crowd, and that all God’s creatures live in the path of a potential destructive natural event, whether by flood, fire or earthquake.

Do we really need a reminder of impermanence, or do we need an assurance of God’s presence? Where are you, Permanent God? How can we reach you?

Two years ago, I wrote a column declaring Sukkot “the most romantic of Jewish holidays.” Rabbi Amy Bernstein, leader of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades, told me, “Sukkot is all about pleasure.”

After the intensity of Yom Kippur, repenting the ways we’ve failed our creator, king and judge, “Sukkot is celebrating that we’ve come back,” Bernstein said. “It’s all about when we dwelled in the desert with God, when we depended only on God — it’s this kind of wonderful, gorgeous honeymoon imagery.” 

But this year, it’s the honeymoon from hell.

Days after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, I was on the treadmill watching a news report of a woman standing in floodwater up to her knees, with her destroyed home behind her, crying, “God is great! Oh my God, y’all. God is great!” She was sobbing, wailing, hysterical, but she kept repeating: “God is great!”

I thought, is she nuts?

In times like these, when life feels more tragic than romantic, we all have a choice: We can turn toward God, hang out like lovers in the Sukkah, or we can turn away. 

A rabbinic interpretation holds that when we are told to “blot out the memory” of Amalek, an archetypal villain of the Bible, what we’re really blotting out is doubt. The curse Amalek brings is confusion and despair.

But that is part of faith, too. Like the guest’s wandering dog, we get a little lost sometimes. Our shelter may collapse. But God is always there, trying to find us.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.