Sukkot: A Fleeting Moment

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger 


Torah Portion: Sukkot

Dear Friends: 

It’s definitely the harvest season in the Northeast- the leaves have started to change and many of the summer fruits are no longer available at the local farmer’s market. Yet we still go according to the seasonal rhythms of the land of Israel and make our sukkot, our open booths, to “dwell” in for seven days, as sign of our joy and gratitude for the blessings of nature and the wonders of Jewish history. 

The essence of a sukkah is its finitude; it has temporary walls and an open roof of plants, stalks, boughs or leaves. Yet ultimately, all of our dwellings are temporary; this point is made clear in the haftarah, or prophetic reading, for the second day of the holiday. It’s the story of the early days of the ancient Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant and other holy vessels were brought into the new structure by King Solomon, This was done during the holiday of Sukkot, a supremely festive time in the Biblical calendar, and was part of the overall dedication and inauguration of the Temple, which itself marked a new phase of Jewish history. 

When the holy vessels were brought to the Temple, the Presence of the Sacred was sensed to fill the building and Solomon announces: 

” I have now built for You
A stately House,
A place where You
May dwell forever.” (1 Kings 8:13- full text here.)

The irony, of course, is that we, Solomon’s heirs, know well that the ancient Temple, the “stately House,” was itself merely temporary, lasting a few hundred years, being destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again. 

Clearly the obvious connection of the haftarah to the holiday is the mention of the festival itself; we’ve been celebrating at this time of year for a very long time, and that in itself is a humbling and amazing thing to contemplate. The sukkah is understood as a dwelling place of the Divine Presence, just as the ancient Temple was, but it comes and goes in a week, and we know from the start it won’t be there forever. It’s a cliche to say that joy can be found by being “in the moment,” but it’s true- nothing lasts forever, not the ancient Temple, not our houses or wealth or health or careers or anything else in which we might place a hope for ultimate security. 

The sukkah reminds us to be more fully aware of the particular moment: if it’s raining or hot or cold, we feel it, and give thanks nonetheless. That ability, to be mindful and grateful and fully present, is truly a more reliable path to spiritual awareness than even the grandest edifice, and all it requires is an open heart. 

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach, 

RNJL 

P.S.- who would have thought that the Huffington Post would be a source for great Torah learning? Check out Sukkot commentaries from my alma mater, the Ziegler School, here and here

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