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September 21, 2018 8:05 am

Sukkot and Impermanence

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

In discussing the festival of Sukkot, the Talmud gives all the various possible explanations for the origin and purpose of a Sukkah. Its final idea is that of impermanence. “Leave your permanent home, and live in a temporary home.” In many ways, impermanence is in our genes: Our wandering forebears. Our movable Tabernacle. Exile. Return. Impermanence really resonates with us.

We humans are indeed transient. We live our lives in constant tension between permanence and impermanence. We can be snuffed out in a flash. We are specks on the timeline of life. We are driven by a desire for life and the struggle to avoid death. There are wars, persecution, political change and upheaval, as well as illness, plagues, and natural disasters. Life is a struggle. We struggle to work, to live, to love. As a result, many of us feel insecure, depressed, and stressed.

We need certainties — to know where we stand, where we live and where we work, what country we are citizens of, what party, what religion, what sect within a religion. We yearn for permanence. Resolution. To know how the world works and the reason for everything. We need to feel we belong. We need to feel comfortable, secure, loved, wanted, admired, and respected. We pay fortunes to psychiatrists, therapists, gurus, coaches, and rabbis to give us the easy answers. And we take drugs, alcohol, and pills. Anything to help us cope and ease the pain. But there are very few certainties in life “except death and taxes” as Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said.

Once upon a time, we knew what our positions were in hierarchies — in states, classes, in religions, in nations. We lived in a world where these defined most of us. A few people in each generation were able to move up and rise. Most stayed put. In a world of constant conquest and change, we have always been at the mercy of forces beyond our control. But now, we seem to want to control everything, everyone, every space, and every argument. We want to have everything: money, power, freedom to do as we please. Not to be challenged or offended.

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We have indeed advanced dramatically, combating poverty and disease. The latest figure just published in The Wall Street Journal is that extreme poverty is now down to 10% (but that’s still too much).

In Western countries, we have so much more than we used to. But that does not seem to bring much happiness or contentment. Look how angry and hypersensitive so many people have become, despite all the social welfare, safety nets, and preferences that never existed 70 years ago. Look how fractious identity politics has become, how aggressive the pressure groups. We have become neurotic when things don’t happen just the way we want them to. Yet, for all that, I’d rather live in a world of uncertainty and choice than have dictators or ideological fanatics tell me what to do.

No system is perfect or permanent. Each has aspects that are positive. The one common feature of our present world is Capisolism (my invented word) — the need for capital expansion and growth to fund the basic social needs of the poorest and the weakest. But that in itself is a variable. China has a command economy. It can do things better and faster, precisely because it can trample on individual wishes. America, on the other hand, values individual liberties and freedoms. But such liberties cause conflict, fragmentation, delays, and compromises. Both suffer from corruption. 

To adapt Orwell, all states cause harm. Some states cause much more harm than others. Despite Fukuyama’s unfortunate title The End of History, there is no end. It cannot end, because humans are constantly changing. There is no final, no perfect state. Only constant fluidity and cycles. Rises and falls. Situations that seem desperate one moment become successful and peaceful the next. War turns to peace and peace to war. My liberalism is predicated on hearing other views, examining other ideas, and listening respectfully to other views.

I embrace impermanence because that has been my life. I know many who have had it far worse — far more tragic and unstable than I. But I have never had a permanent home, a permanent country, or a permanent job. I have always been wandering in the desert and finding my shade where I can. I have always been aware of people who hate me for who I am and what I am. Even personal life has had its impermanence, its ups and downs, good moments and bad ones. I do not expect perfection or resolution. I only know I have to try cope. I am fortunate to be a very happy fellow.

This impermanence, I suggest, is why the Torah gives us no ideal political or even social system, or a perfect example of how to run societies. Because there is no perfect solution. Different circumstances call for different responses. We cannot control the world or societies. All we can do is our best. The Torah constantly reminds us of the need to behave, to think, to bring spiritual ideas to mind, to enrich our lives, while at the same time reminding us that we have the freedom and choice to make crucial decisions. (Even if, as Moses predicted, many of us will get it wrong, and disappear from our people and merge with others.)

Sukkot is the festival of impermanence — throughout history, and now. How many will come and sit with us? How many will simply not be there? Sukkot reminds us that impermanence can be good. Perhaps not all the time. No one wants an impermanent marriage or impermanent children. But impermanence can be good and necessary too, if it helps us appreciate what we have and determine to preserve it.  

In Manhattan, having a Sukkah in one’s home or apartment block is almost impossible (though some succeed). Meanwhile, there is nowhere easier to have a Sukkah, more available, more convenient, and widespread than in Israel. That, too, is part of our impermanence. That we always have in the backs of our minds on our festivals that we ought to think of where we came from and might want to go back to.

“The world runs according to its own rules,” says the Talmud. We humans need our rules, too. But if rules for human behavior have remained more or less constant, societies have always been unpredictable. Pendulums swing, and as Harold Wilson said, “A week in politics is a very long time.” People and states rise and fall. But the Sukkah has survived them all.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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