The Paradox of Sukkot: Finding Joy in Uncertainty
When contemplating the festival of Sukkot, we are confronted with a remarkable paradox.
As is well known, the Sukkah visualizes our life span in the world. For what is a Sukkah? It is a frail structure in which we need to dwell for seven days. Many commentators remind us that these seven days represent man’s average life span, which is about 70 years. This was well stated by King David when he wrote, “The span of his years are seventy and with strength eighty years.” (Tehilim 90:10)
Indeed, under favorable circumstances, we may prolong our stay in this world into our eighth day; this is symbolized by Shemini Chag Atzereth, (a separate festival immediately following the seven days of Sukkot).
Nevertheless, it’s a wonder how frail our life is — not only short, but also unreliable. As long as we live under favorable and healthy circumstances, life is a pleasant experience, and just like the Sukkah, it seems to protect us and make us safe. But once life gives us serious problems or turns against us, we realize how unstable our lives really are. Like the Sukkah, it is far less reliable than we had imagined.
Perplexing, however, is the fact that the festival of Sukkot is seen as the highlight of joy and happiness. Speaking specifically about Sukkot, the Torah states: “And you shall be happy on your festival” (Devarim 16-14). This means that we should experience the most exalted form of happiness at a time when we have to dwell in a structure that is far from secure.
In fact, Jewish law makes it utmost clear that the Sukkah must be built in such a way that it is not able to stand up against a strong wind, that its roof must be leaking when it starts to rain and that it must contain more shadow than sunlight.
These conditions should make us feel distressed, because the Sukkah seems to represent the vulnerability of man. So why command us to be joyful precisely at the time when we are confronted with all that can go wrong in life?
Here another question comes to mind. Since the Sukkah teaches us about life’s handicaps, we would expect that Jewish law would also require the interior of the Sukkah to reflect a similar message. As such, the Sukkah should be empty of all comfort. It should just contain some broken chairs, an old table and some meager cutlery with which to eat one’s dry bread.
Yet Jewish law holds a great surprise. It requires that the Sukkah’s interior should reflect a most optimistic lifestyle. Its frail walls should be decorated with beautiful art, paintings and other decorations. The leaking roof, made from leaves or reeds, should be made to look attractive by hanging colorful fruits down from it. One is required to bring one’s best furniture into the Sukkah, to put a carpet on the ground, have nice curtains hanging in front of its windows, etc. One should eat from the most beautiful plates and use one’s best cutlery. Meals should be more elaborate, including delicacies. Singing should accompany those meals. All this seems to reflect a feeling that this world is a most pleasant place made for our enjoyment and recreation.
So why sit in a frail hut?
The message could not be clearer: however much the outside walls and the leaking roof reveal man’s vulnerability and uncertainty, inside these walls one needs to make one’s life as attractive as possible and enjoy its great benefits and blessings.
This should not be lost on us. Instead of becoming depressed and losing faith in life after the great tragedies that befall us, we should continue to approach life with the optimistic note that is conveyed to us by the beautiful interior of the Sukkah. True, the ongoing guerrilla attacks on Jews in the land of Israel and the collapse of the Twin Towers in the heart of the US prove how vulnerable modern man really is and how shaken the outer walls of his “Sukkah” are. But this should not hold us back from enjoying life as much as possible. To be happy when all is well is of no great significance. But to be fully aware of the dangers that surround us and simultaneously continue our lives with “song and harp” is what makes humans great and proud.
We should therefore discourage people from speculating about “the end of days” or reading kabbalistic and other sources informing us that the messianic days are very close and that the wars preceding his coming are imminent. There is no way of knowing. Just as in the days of Shabbatai Zvi, such speculations, however tempting, could cause a great backlash and do a lot of harm. Instead we should stay planted with our feet on the ground, and make sure we live up to our moral and religious obligations.
All of our tragedies should encourage people to be more united and to show more sensitivity to each other’s needs. They should encourage Jew and gentile to build strong family ties and create, just as in the case of the Sukkah, strong and pleasant homes. They should inspire people to go to synagogue and church and create strong communities, because these are some of the decorations in our lifelong Sukkah.
The walls of our world may be shaking, but let us not forget that we have an obligation to decorate the interior.