‘My Sukkah isn’t kosher!’ by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang
Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 15 October 2019
I am sorry to tell you that my sukkah at home isn’t kosher!
(“What do you mean?” I hear some of you ask, and “so what?” I hear from others).
Ideally, we are supposed to start building our sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur – even before breaking our fast. But it was cold and dark on Wednesday evening, and late when I got home, so I didn’t. So early on Thursday morning, I climbed gingerly on my tall ladder to place lengths of trellis over the beams of the pergola thing outside my kitchen. Then I attacked the laurel bush, put the cuttings in a blue IKEA bag, took them upstairs to my bedroom, and one at a time threw them out of the window aiming at the roof of the sukkah.
This is a well-tested system which works well when it isn’t too windy, and I can always collect the bits that missed the roof later for a second throwing session.
Except that this year, it has been even wetter and windier than usual for the time of year, and by yesterday afternoon, most of my sechach had blown away and I didn’t have the time or energy to get more. According to strict Halacha, there are many detailed rules about building a sukkah – where it can be, its size, the materials of which it may be constructed, and so on. But most importantly, for a sukkah roof to be ‘valid’, there should be more shade than sun. Well there hasn’t been any sun, but my sukkah roof currently has much more sky and cloud than shade, so it definitely isn’t kosher.
As a Reform Jew trying to observe Sukkot in a proper spirit, how should I deal with this? For example:
- I could say to myself that it was the thought or intention to fulfil the mitzva that counted, no-one else is going to know or care, and I will eat my meals out there regardless (I wasn’t planning to sleep in the sukkah anyway).
- I could satisfy myself that spending time in the communal sukkah here at Alyth, or at college, will be good enough (even though the Talmud is quite specific that sukkah is a mitzvah that each person should fulfil individually)
- Or I could focus on the other mitzvot of this festival: being joyful, “shaking bits of tree” (as Rabbi Josh puts it) in the form of lulav and etrog.
- Or tell myself that “rituals” don’t really matter – and I should concentrate on the principles that in the Reform world have come to have the status of mitzvot – welcoming visitors and strangers, contributing to the welfare of vulnerable people – whether by personal effort or by participating in communal projects.
I’m not seriously worried that the failure of my sukkah this year will of itself jeopardise my fate in the coming year, or even my studies at ‘rabbi school’, let alone the future of the planet – but it has made me think a lot about our attitudes to symbols and rituals in the Reform world.
This week I have been reading a book called “Mastering Life” by a young orthodox rabbi who actually grew up here in this community. His particular search for meaning and enlightenment in his life took him first to Eastern religions and martial arts, before he rediscovered Judaism, or perhaps it found him. He describes his quest to become more like a tzaddik – a truly righteous person – and for him, trying to say at least 100 berachot every day, and fulfil as many mitzvot as possible, always aiming to do so with full awareness or mindfulness, has been a helpful structure.
I find myself almost envious of his conviction of the power of individual acts of mitzva to make the world a better place. My rational Reform self doesn’t subscribe to it – and yet…. What exactly do we think we are doing when we recite a formula we don’t fully understand, or participate in the vestiges of a weird fertility rite by shaking the lulav? If it isn’t somehow to try and help restore balance in the world, is it just nostalgia, or self-improvement?
I would like to invite each of us to spend just a moment reflecting on Jewish practice in our own life. How have you decided what to do and what not to do? If you have continued a practice from your early life, is it through conviction or habit, or loyalty to those from whom you learned it, or laziness? If you have stopped doing something you used to do, was that a conscious decision? If you have become more observant, what factors shaped that change – was it perhaps family members, life events, something you learned from reading or study or conversation…? How did you do it…. gradually or suddenly, with or without help?
Early Reform Judaism in the late 19th and early 20th century stressed ‘Ethical Monotheism’ – belief in one God who has an interest in how we humans behave towards on another. Although the synagogue services were very formal by our standards now, there was much less stress on the ritual mitzvot and considerable ambivalence about them. My own memories of Sukkot and Simchat Torah services here even in the 60s and 70s were that shaking the lulav, or dancing with the Torah, was something cringingly embarrassing, that has to be done because it is what Jews do, but if possible should be done by the rabbi on behalf of the community. I think that many of us grew up somewhat ambivalent about or even contemptuous of ritual, but I know that my own attitude has changed over time, as has the practice in many of our communities, but we are still quite resistant, especially to public participation.
We seem to feel that we have to reach a full intellectual understanding of, and belief in, a practice before it is right to do it – whether it is making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, acknowledging a mezuzah as we pass through a doorway, wearing tallit, restricting our activities on Shabbat, reciting brachot before and after eating… Or is it simply that being “Reform” somehow frees us from any sense of obligation?
I would like to suggest a slightly different approach and must apologise that it first came to me from a terrible joke book with which my little brother used to plague us on long car journeys in our childhood. It went like this:
1st child: I’m glad I don’t like cauliflower.
2nd child: Why are you glad?
1st child: Because if I did, I’d eat the stuff! Ugh!
In other words, the first speaker cannot conceive of the possibility that his preferences might change, indeed that the food he assumes is abhorrent but has never tasted, might in fact be desirable.
We are told that when Moses told the Children of Israel about the commandments on Mount Sinai, the people said:
Kol asher dibber Adonai na’aseh venishmah – everything that God has said we will do and we will hear.
This is variously interpreted as blind obedience – we accept the commands even before we know what they are – or as “we will do what we understand” but na’aseh venishmah could also mean ‘through doing we will come to understand’…
Perhaps, just perhaps, we need to eat cauliflower (or broccoli, or mushroom soup for that matter) a few times in order to develop a taste for it. We may need to overcome our reticence about some of our traditional Jewish practices, and just try them, in order to grasp their potential value in our lives.
And maybe I need to get back out there during Chol HaMoed and rebuild my sukkah – or maybe just plan better and get more help next year.