May 1, 2017

Reflections back on Sukkot and how it helps us escape our preoccupation with possessions.

Around the year 1845, the American writer, Henry David Thoreau, left his house to live in a log cabin in the middle of the forests of New England. While there, he wrote three works, including the classic, Walden.

A hundred and sixty six years later, in 2011, a few weeks ago, as autumn set in across London, a few thousand middle-class men and women also left their homes, to eat, talk and maybe even sleep in little shacks in their back gardens. This is behaviour one expects of a 19th-century writer, not of a 21st -century dentist or accountant.
What is this bizarre mitzvah of sukkah actually about?
In life, we tend to accumulate large amounts of possessions, of "stuff". Phones, clothes, cars, houses and also things that are slightly less tangible: titles, promotions, professional status.
What can often happen is that we start to identify ourselves with the stuff. It is not that I work as a doctor, it is that I am a doctor. It is not that I have a nice house, but rather I start, maybe subconsciously, to see my house, my bank account, my watch, my clothes as part of who I actually am. We locate our personality in things outside, not inside, ourselves.
In the sukkah, a little shack with frail walls and hardly a roof at all, we leave all the stuff behind. This allows us to perceive for seven days that our identity does not lie in a new dress, a new house, or a new career promotion. As a result, we become free to locate our identity where it truly belongs, inside ourselves. In our thoughts, feelings and values.
Our tradition tells us that the walls of the sukkah represent the Clouds of Glory, which surrounded the Jewish people in the desert after they left Egypt, and that the presence of these clouds was a consequence of the moral and spiritual merit of Aaron, Moses's brother.
These statements seem esoteric, but it is possible to unlock them with the following words: "Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace" (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 1:12).
The tight connection between the sukkah and Aaron - between the sukkah and the pursuit of peace - is that when we move into the sukkah and leave the "stuff" behind, we do not only gain a clarified sense of self, but we also relinquish the self-created barriers that so often come between us and others.
Living in the sukkah we realise our essential frailty and impermanence as we hear the wind blowing a couple of inches from us and, because of this, because we have put away the superficial props of ego, we are so much better able to connect to those around us.
It is no coincidence that this is the time when we take the four species, the lulav, etrog, willow and myrtle in our hands. The Midrash tells us that each of these different species represents a vastly different personality type that exists within the Jewish people, and that our act of binding these species together is the act of bringing all people together, despite, or even because of, our differences.
So, the sukkah leads to connection, not just to one's true, unencumbered self, but also to those around us. More than that, this letting go of exaggerated self-importance leads to a further level of connection. It allows for a receptivity to the spiritual, to the Divine. The clouds which the sukkah represents are in fact a manifestation of the Divine presence.
With such multilevel opportunities to connect - to ourselves, to others, and to the Divine - it is not surprising that, of all festivals in the Torah, this is the one described as "the time of our joy".
But one question remains: if there is so much to be gained through the sukkah, why does it only last for seven days, why is it not a more regular feature of Jewish life, or at least something like it: maybe a retreat, or some type of monastery?
The answer is that, ultimately, the Torah believes in engagement with the world, with money, jobs, status and possessions. However complex it may be to confront the risk of being sucked into a headless freefall of stuff, stuff and more stuff and to hazard the blurring of our identity with the things that we own, we believe in the huge value of that engagement. It is, in fact, a large part of life itself.
The question is, however, how to come out of that gargantuan struggle alive and kicking, without confusion or inflated ego.
The answer is that if we absorb an intense dose of clarity, the clarity borne of seven days in the shade of the sukkah, we might, indeed, succeed.
Rabbi Glass runs the Belsize Park branch of the Jewish Learning Exchange
A different version of this article was first published by the JC on Oct 11th 2011

TAGS for this article: Sukkot | Materialism