Sukkot Gets Real

Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case. My father did not especially connect with these holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way. He did not grow up with much Jewish ritual in his life. At the same time, he was a deeply spiritual person. He spent close to 60  years of his life immersed in the study and practice of law, but I do not think he connected to the idea of a court on high in which we would be judged. Almost his entire career and life was committed to immigrants to this country, but in many ways in the place of the synagogue he himself was an alien.

While my dad was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands. When it comes to my mourning process, there is a big part of me that is expecting the shoe to drop on Sukkot. Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals.  This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.

The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva regarding the nature of a Sukkah. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the Sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The Sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that when they entered into a Sukkah in their own era that they were actually sitting in the imagined reference point? Either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. Does this symbol represent a metaphor to the Divine presence or does it represent something akin to what we were using in the desert?

Clearly these two Rabbis would eat in each other’s Sukkot, so what are they disagreeing about? At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality (real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)? The Sukkah is a tangible and real structure formed by human hands. And at the same time it is it a spiritual space that connects us to God. The Sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in a physical and historic way, while simultaneously offering  a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.

While at first glance I think that my father might agree with Rabbi Akiva, I truly believe that he connected to Rabbi Eliezer as well. He found  deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. While, the Sukkah is immersive metaphor we get to really enter our national and religious memories, it is also the place we build to hold family memories. 

I’m reminded of the many ways in which camp is like a Sukkah, an  immersive metaphor we get to really enter. Camp is a community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located. Like a Sukkah, camp is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness all year-long. Additionally, while a Sukkah is an enclosed dwelling made up of four walls to keep us safe, we are supposed to cover it with branches to ensure that we can still see the stars above. Camp also functions this way: while it takes place in a specific space and time and is safe and secure, the lessons we learn and the friends we make transcend these limitations, providing a light that shines through the year – and for the rest of our lives. For many of us camp friends are really like family. 

For me I expect that my mourning will get real during Sukkot.  I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is all at once a metaphor for the tangible, mystical, and familial. 

James Joseph Orlow z’l and Libi Frydman Orlow his 14th grandchild

 

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