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Rabbi David Wolpe

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Time, Eternity and Sukkot

Posted: 10/12/11 01:23 PM ET

In Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver looks at his watch so often that his hosts the Brobdingnagians think he is consulting his god. In the first decades of the last century the historian of civilization's presumed decline, Oswald Spengler, pointed out that human beings had become obsessive clock watchers, mesmerized by that "dread symbol" of our own mortal brevity.

Well, things have gotten far worse since Swift and Spengler. All of us acknowledge how we rush the moments. If the computer lags for seconds, it feels endless as an insomniac waiting vainly for sleep. If our flight, traversing thousands and thousands of miles, is an hour late, we complain as if the sun refused to rise. We are not even minute men, but nanosecond men and women, splitting the day into innumerable microdrops of time. We do not merely fail to look at things under the aspect of eternity, we can rarely stretch our vision past the next moment.

Thankfully, there is Sukkot. During this holiday we read the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. Kohelet reminds us that there is a "time for everything under heaven." In the famous third chapter we are told that there is a time for living, for dying, for laughing, for weeping. We think ourselves masters of time but the true artistry of life is to live fully in time's passing.

The sukkah is a symbol of impermanence. If a sukkah is built so that it is too sturdy it is not a kosher sukkah. We must sit in something that is fragile, fleeting, sure to disappear tomorrow, for that is our fate as well. I have never seen a clock hang in a sukkah; the sukkah itself is a symbol of impermanence. In the sukkah each person knows that he does not have forever, and that our obsession with controlling each instant is actually an expression of the anxiety that we are mortal. How much better to understand and accept our fate, an acceptance encouraged by the practice of sitting in this makeshift booth, as the structure of the sukkah contains within it a powerful secret.

Not only must a sukkah be fragile, but its roof must be porous. You cannot fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah unless the braches that form the roof have sufficient space between them so that one can see the stars. The stars remind us that there is something eternal. God endures when we pass away.

We struggle with time for we are creatures of an instant. But we are also products of eternity and in that realization is a comfort that we should live for the good that will outlast us. Our struggles are not vain or empty because they are temporary. Our kindness will not vanish or our love disappear. Our bodies are composed of the animate dust of dead stars, but the living ones will continue to shine after we are only dust once more.

Enter the sukkah and leave your watch outside. Here time takes a back seat to timelessness. There is beauty in fragility for all things pass away except the One who made all things. As you sit in the sukkah, instead of counting the minutes, count the stars. And praise their Source for this fleeting, bursting, beautiful world.