To Be, or Not To Be: Sukkot 5782

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When I first became a father, I felt the predictable mix of joy, excitement, and fear. Other fathers had told me to expect all of those feelings, particularly the fear. Babies are fragile and needy and apparently don’t come with instruction manuals. 

But what no one told me to expect was the tremendous guilt I felt after Lilah was born. Perhaps other fathers don’t feel this, but I for sure did. Here’s how I felt: Before our daughter was born, there only existed the platonic ideal of a child, a perfect, and therefore immortal, concept. Even while Adira was pregnant, when we could hear sonogram heartbeats and see ultrasound images of this as-yet unborn child, she still existed for me largely as an idea, a theoretical proposition. 

But once Lilah was born, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. After all, what is the act of bringing life into the world if not transforming a flawless and deathless soul into a material and mortal being? Adira and I were having a baby knowing full well that the minute anyone and anything is born, it begins to die; that, without her consent, we had condemned our creation to a life in which she would inevitably know sickness and suffering, longing and loss, disease and death. Perhaps, if my daughter had been given the choice, and if she had been made fully aware of the consequences of that decision, she would never have chosen to have been conceived in the first place. 

As time went on, however, my feelings began to change. As I watched this little creation not only struggle and scream — which admittedly she seemed to do a lot — but also explore, enjoy, play, learn, love, and grow — I came to realize that there are positive consequences of being created. To exist is not only to know pain but also pleasure; not only loss and longing, but also love. Sometimes, goodness can even be discerned in the difficult stuff — the poop and the pain, the spit-up and the stumbles. Life can be beautiful and meaningful and profoundly worth it not despite the imperfections, but also because of them.

Yes, to exist in materiality is to be imperfect and impermanent. But life is also filled with nearly immeasurable possibilities — to enjoy all the beauty and bounty this world has to offer, to bless and benefit the lives of others, and to leave this world a little better than we found it. True, a platonic ideal will never know agony, but it can also never know ecstasy. It can never lose, but it also can never give. It cannot harm or be harmed, but it can never help or heal. It will never die, but it also can never live

I’m not sure if other new fathers feel what I felt. But I suspect that, deep down, many if not most of us wonder if we’d have been better off never having been born. Famously, Shakespeare’s melancholy Danish prince Hamlet asserts “to be, or not to be — that is the question.” And according to the Talmud, the ancient schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years over whether human beings would have been better off never having been created. We intuit the precariousness of our lives. We’ve experienced affliction and struggled with loss. As a result, we try very hard to protect ourselves from pain and suffering, discontent and even death. We yearn for continuous comfort and perfect peace, to live happily ever after. But what we find, if we are honest, is that the pursuit of perfection has a very high price. Perfection has no flaw, but also no beauty; no pain, but also no pleasure; no loss, but also no love; no death, but also no life. 

Consider the sukkah. According to the Jewish legal tradition, sukkot must be temporary. A sukkah’s walls can be reused from year to year, but the structure’s roof, in Hebrew its skhakh, must be newly put on each and every year for the explicit purpose of celebrating the eponymous festival, and taken off until having to be replaced the following year. The skhakh has to be made of organic material — gidul min ha-karka, something that grows from the ground — but that is hatukh min ha-karka, no longer attached to the ground. In other words, the roof, which is legally understood to be the structure’s essence, the element that makes a sukkah a sukkah, is designed to be something that will wilt, decompose, and even disintegrate over time, underscoring the temporary nature of the thing. We erect our sukkot knowing full well that their end is to be taken down. We assemble our sukkot with the awareness that we will in short order need to disassemble them. And we recognize that, whether or not we actively dismantle our sukkot, time will invariably take care of that work for us. 

And what’s more — while Jewish law mandates that the skhakh atop our sukkot should provide maximum shade and allow for minimum sunlight, it also must be porous enough to allow us to see at least some of the night sky through the leaves and branches. Similarly, sukkot must have walls but rarely are known to have actual doors. These facts combine to mean that sukkot invariably leave us exposed to elements such as rain, and at the very onset of the rainy season, to boot. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always experienced the idea of dwelling in a sukkah much more pleasant than the reality of actually doing it. You go to eat in your sukkah, and it’s always either too hot or too cold. By the time you get all your cooked food from your kitchen to your hut, it’s no longer at the optimum temperature or consistency. Swarms of greedy flies seem to materialize out of thin air. The season’s last bees linger. Mosquitos freshly spawned from the mix of late-summer warmth and early-autumn wetness make you their meal, while you try to enjoy your own. Sudden gusts of wind make a mess of your purposeful table settings, sending napkins flying, hurtling leaves and errant decor into your soup bowls and serving dishes. You rush to eat while rain clouds threaten, only to disappear right as you finish birkat hamazon. You find yourself drenched in a downpour, despite the forecast having called for cloudless sunshine. I cannot tell you how many times my children and I have excitedly planned for slumber parties in the sukkah, only to realize, after about 15 minutes outside, that it is impossible to sleep in a sukkah. And then, after a week of dealing with all this tzuris, let alone all the headaches (and perhaps injuries) involved in building the darn thing in the first place, down it comes, gone until the cycle starts over again next year. What a weird tradition!

Speaking of weird traditions, take a moment also to consider the arba minim, the four species of plants we are obligated to take up and wave around on Sukkot. You might know these better as the lulav and etrog, the names of the two most prominent of these species, the palm branch and the citron. Like the skhakh atop the sukkah, the lulav and etrog are from, but no longer attached to, the ground. Therefore, they are guaranteed to wilt and wither over time. We take up these species knowing full well that they will ultimately fall apart, which they often do during the week of sukkot itself. 

Again, I don’t know about you, but I have always found the idea of waving the lulav and etrog to be much more pleasant than the reality of actually doing it, especially by the time you get to the end of the holiday, when the etrog starts to brown, and the willow and myrtle shed their leaves left and right, leaving an utter mess everywhere! And then, after a week of dealing with all this tzuris, the etrog gets put in the sock drawer to dry out, the lulav gets set aside to be burned with the hametz before Pesah, and the rest of the leaves and branches get thrown away. 

And yet, while it is true that a sukkah, or a lulav and etrog, are better in theory than in reality, to point out the glaringly obvious, a theoretical sukkah is not a sukkah; a theoretical lulav and etrog are not a lulav and etrog. A theoretical lulav and etrog may not decay or deteriorate, but it also can never be as unique, beautiful, or bizarrely fun as a real lulav and etrog. 

Similarly, appreciating a theoretical sukkah may enable us to avoid the pitfalls inherent in dwelling in these all-too real, if all-too imperfect, impermanent structures. But it is also not nearly as fun, either. A sukkah’s very impermanence is what makes it precious. It’s very imperfection is what makes it beautiful. Yes, sukkot are architecturally faulty and materially ephemeral, especially compared to the kinds of homes in which most of us are fortunate enough to live nowadays. But unless you build one, you miss the possibilities present in a living encounter with the world’s beauty; the excuse to share your bounty with others; the opportunity to contribute something that makes this planet a little better than you found it. True, you never have to feel a draft or get soaked through by a sudden storm in a platonic ideal of a sukkah, but you’ll also never get to experience the delights of dwelling in one, either. A theoretical sukkah never has to be taken down, and cannot be destroyed by the elements. But it can also never be filled with food, family, and friends. A theoretical sukkah doesn’t wither, but it also has no life; it takes nothing, but also gives nothing.

In many ways, that is the message of the biblical book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which, according to tradition, we study today, on Shabbat Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “even a live dog is better than a dead lion”; imperfect existence is preferable to the perfection of nonexistence. And because life, for all its flaws, is better than the alternative, we are duty-bound to enjoy it, to fill and make the most of our days. “Go, eat your bread in gladness,” teaches Ecclesiastes, “and drink your wine in joy…enjoy life with a loving partner all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fleeting days…Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might, for there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.” Life may be faulty and fleeting. But only death is perfect and permanent.

Perhaps this is why our tradition instructs us to dwell for seven days in very real, imperfect, and impermanent structures. The Talmud teaches, aseh sukkat’kha keva v’diratekha arai, make your flawed and transient sukkah your permanent dwelling place, and treat your sturdy, stable, and secure dwelling as temporary. To the extent possible, for the duration of the festival, we are told to move our whole lives into our sukkot, filling these fragile shelters with food and friends, light and laughter. We do this to confront a fundamental truth — that the cost of perfection and permanence is life itself. To truly live, we must embrace the imperfection and impermanence that are an essential part of life.

In our all-too-human impulse to protect ourselves against the pain and the loss, the discontent and even death that are invariably a part of our existence, we risk closing ourselves off from everything that makes life worthwhile — love and relationship, joy and generosity, pleasure and purpose. 

As my rabbi Bruce Springsteen puts it, “That feeling of safety you prize/ Well it comes with a hard, hard price. / You can’t shut out the risk and the pain / Without losing the love that remains.”

Sukkot reminds us — if we want love, we have to open ourselves up to risk. If we want joy, we have to open ourselves to pain. If we want life, we have to open ourselves up to loss. On sukkot, we pick up our fragile lulavim and dwell in our ephemeral shelters, holding them as they fall apart, appreciating their beauty as they fade away, recognizing that this is life, in all its imperfection and impermanence.

And, at the very least, it’s better than the alternative.

Hag sameach.

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