Sukkot is a strange holiday. What stands behind the custom of sitting in a fragile booth in the backyard while a sturdy house stands nearby? The traditional explanations are three, two of them from the desert. Either the Sukkah represents the booths that Israel dwelt in while wandering through Sinai, or it represents the cloud covering God offered the Israelites in the same wandering. The third explanation is that the Sukkah is reminiscent of the harvest. During the gathering laborers rest or perhaps briefly live in these booths if the fields were far from home. Yet For all the justifications concerning harvesting and desert wanderings, Sukkot represents something deeper than historical reenactment. Sukkot strikes at the heart of the human predicament.
As Frost wrote, "nothing gold can stay." This holiday is about instability and evanescence. Yom Kippur has shaken our certainties. Sukkot arrives to reinforce the truth - we are temporary. The Sukkah is fragile by design. If a Sukkah is too sturdy it is not kosher. We have to remember that the Sukkah tells the truth about our homes -- each is truly fragile; if the earth rocked or the winds came, they would collapse. We live on sand and believe it is rock. Our lives are brief and we live as if we had forever.
The book we read for Sukkot is Ecclesiastes (Hebrew name -- Koheleth). With its famous declaration that "all is vanity" (in other words, futility, emptiness) Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything is passing, ourselves included. Our seemingly stable homes are transient, and our lives are a spark snatched from the abyss.
Yet one requirement of the Sukkah points us still deeper. A Sukkah has a porous roof because one must be able to see the stars. For in the midst of the impermanence shines eternity. Through the tracery of leaves, we see hints of the greater world where God presides: "The heavens declare the glory of God," says the psalmist (Ps. 19). On Sukkot we are reminded how much is fragile and fleeting. Then we pray. We look at the stars. We are suddenly grateful to have the assurance of eternity.
The ancient philosopher Epicurus famously said that when it comes to death we all live in an unwalled city. There is no protection. Sukkot is the holiday that reinforces the truth of mortality. Death erases what we are: perhaps that is why standing in a Sukkah you perform the mitzvah -- the commandment -- with your entire body. All of you is in the Sukkah, and all of you that one can see, will one day disappear from this world. But the wandering in the desert which parallels the wandering in this world; the harvest theme which parallels the way in which we harvest the world and at our best make something grow -- these ideas call us to our true destiny. Strangely, the Rabbis call Sukkoth "zman simchateinu" - the time of our joy. In accepting that we are mortal and understanding that our Source is beyond mortality is true joy.
We are made for this world, but not only for this world. There is something beyond us, above us, transcendent. One day it will be our inheritance.