This week, Jews around the world will be leaving their houses temporarily and moving at least part-time into makeshift huts. It is the holiday of Sukkot, meant as a reminder of how God took care of the Jewish people during their 40-year trek through the desert, where he provided not only food and water but sukkah-huts to live in as well. According to Jewish law, the huts that we build for the holiday must be "intentionally" made; they cannot be the incidental results of some pre-existing structure. A quaint, eyebrow raising example in the Talmud makes the point clear: if I am walking in a field during Sukkot and stumble upon a haystack, I can't just hollow out a little cave and sit inside it in order to fulfill my obligation to dwell in a sukkah. Even though the dimensions, the materials of the walls and ceiling, and all other details comply with the most stringent standards of the law, the sukkah is not acceptable since I didn't actually create it. What I did was to make the cave; what I actively created was a hollow space. The resulting "sukkah" itself, according to the esoteric Talmudic distinction, just came about as an incidental by-product, and that is impermissible. The principle of intentionality is derived from the phrase in the Bible: "Thou shalt keep (literally "make") the feast of Tabernacles seven days." The Rabbis read that word "taaseh," to make, as meaning that one must actively, specifically build a sukkah. In other words, the sukkah is a do it yourself project.
In our family, we have been caught by the "DIY" bug for some time. The long list of homemade projects that can be seen around the house includes my wife's pistachio shell artwork, my son's fish-tank table, my daughter's melted crayon pictures, and most recently, another son's coffee table/planter. I just bought a power miter saw which makes me want to grunt when I turn it on and hear its powerful whine, like Tim from Home Improvement.
Some DIY projects from around our house.
The feeling of pride and sense of accomplishment that you get from seeing or using something you created yourself is perhaps not so common nowadays. You have a special relationship with the object; you know its history and exactly how it came to be, and its very imperfections -- a chip here, a misaligned piece there, give it character and personality. But "Doing It Yourself" has some collateral benefits, aside from the enjoyment of the finished product. It imparts important values and lessons -- DIY teaches responsibility. Once you take on a task, you have to finish it. A partly completed clock made of plastic spoons is worthless, and all the time and effort put into it is wasted. DIY also hones skills like innovation, creativity, and problem solving. Every project presents challenges. Even putting together a simple Ikea closet can hold surprises that those clever Swedish designers didn't take into consideration (why is the white shiny side not facing front, and the door slightly crooked?) Inevitably, the need to improvise and figure out a way around some impasse will be required.
The results of a DIY project depend completely on you, and no excuse (I didn't have the right tools, the wood had a knot in it) will matter much if the coffee table is uneven and the cup of coffee tends to spill. When I was in school studying engineering, a teacher showed us a great cartoon that has stayed with me all these years. A worker in a hard hat is standing in front of the wrecked heap of a collapsed bridge and complaining to the foreman: "But boss, I was only off by a decimal place," the caption goes, "don't I even get partial credit?" A DIY project is all about execution, not intention, and in many ways that reflects the reality of the world we live in; ultimately it is by that measure that we are judged by our colleagues, our peers, and even our community and family.
The law that mandates "making" a sukkah means that it has to be a DIY project. I look around my sukkah and think of all that went into designing and building it, and its evolution over time. One year, a violent thunderstorm brought the ceiling crashing down. From then on we put up a beam to support the center. As our fig tree grew, we had to figure out a creative way to build the sukkah around it. Some of the wall slats are uneven and mismatched, makeshift rafters that came from the kids' old bunk bed. Then there is the weathered ladder hanging above the table, once part of a neighbor's swing set. Those improvisations, improvements, changes, reflect the way life unfolds. We learn from our mistakes, adapt to new conditions, take responsibility for our actions, and hopefully enjoy and take pride in the results. In the desert, God provided for our every need. Some people long for a return to that pristine state, but to me it sounds like one of my favorite Star Trek episodes about a planet where death and illness are eradicated and all of man's physical needs are taken care of. Sounds perfect, but the catch is that as a result, society has lost its curiosity and creativity, its passion and purpose. It's up to Captain Kirk to reintroduce some imperfection into that world, thereby saving the culture's soul.
Sitting in my DIY sukkah, I think of how God built the Jewish people those huts long ago, and celebrate the fact that He no longer does. He has given us the amazing gift of allowing us to enjoy our own handiwork. But with that freedom comes responsibility. The holiday season is infused with thoughts of tikkun olam, of repairing an imperfect world. The sukkah reminds us that if the world is indeed going to be improved, we will have to do it ourselves.