10/01/2012 10:26 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Building a Sukkah: Wasp Nests, Palm Fronds and Marital Spats

Five days after the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jews celebrate Sukkot. It's a Thanksgiving-like holiday recalling the sukkot (Hebrew for "temporary shelters") that farmers used to live in near their fields when they harvested their crops. It's also a time of remembering the Israelites who lived in these temporary booths as they wandered in the desert after being freed from Egypt. During Sukkot many Jews literally build a temporary shelter ("sukkah") in which to eat, celebrate, and sometimes sleep. It's a holiday filled with themes of hospitality, thanksgiving, and peace-making.

Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, was just a few days ago. From sundown Tuesday until an hour past sundown Wednesday, many Jews neither ate nor drank. My husband Peter and our children are Jewish, and so I also fast, not only in solidarity with them, but because I now find it spiritually meaningful too.

You might guess that after you haven't eaten or had anything to drink for 25 hours, the first thing you want to do when the last words are sung in the synagogue is dash to the water fountain (especially if there is only one around and there's competition). But the Rabbis from long ago wrote that the first thing you're supposed to do after Kippur is to drive the first nail into your sukkah. Why? If there are five days between Kippur and the beginning of Sukkot, why do the Rabbis say you should begin building your sukkah when you are faint from hunger and thirst?

If you've ever fasted without water that long, this "why" question is a pretty big one. The rabbis gave a succinct answer about doing a good deed as soon as you have the opportunity - one shouldn't wait. And building a sukkah is understood to be a good deed, a mitzvah.

A few years ago when I lived in Savannah, GA, we decided to build a sukkah in our backyard. After breaking the fast with alot of water and a few bagels at synagogue, we returned home where Peter had assembled lumber, his drill and screws. He thought we should do a little work right away, and I loved what the Rabbis said about starting right away on building the sukkah.

All was well. We drilled a couple of holes and we got the boards ready for the frame. It was fun. For the first five minutes. Because after 25 hours of fasting, that was enough for me. "That's enough. Let's go to bed." He looked at me and said, "C'mon El, just a bit're not really into this are you?"

"Are you kidding? I came out here just like the Rabbis said and did my part - I just need a little rest. They said we only had to drive ONE nail in! We'll get to it in the morning. We have five days!" Peter sulked a little, and so did I. Those rabbis sure didn't know a lot about marital relations when they asked us to build something in the dark after starving all day.

The next day I set out to my family's farm to gather palm fronds for the roof of the sukkah. The roof of a sukkah should have enough holes in it that you can still see the stars. Why build a roof if you can see through it? Tradition has it that this reinforces the vulnerable and temporary nature of the sukkah and reinforces a theme in sukkot: that ultimately it is on God that we depend, not on our own power and might. In our culture we aren't used to rejoicing in our vulnerability, but it's precisely through our vulnerability that we come to know God's abiding strength and presence in our lives.

As I set out from the house to gather the fronds, the door slamming behind me, my sister shouted, "Hey El, don't forget to look under the palm fronds before you cut them from the tree - that's where wasps build nests!" Oh great, why didn't I just order bamboo from some company like all of the normal Jewish families? I was mighty glad that my sister Catherine remembered to tell me that because the first branch I lifted had a live wasp nest on it. And so did the next one. And the next one.

I finally found some beautiful grass-like shrubbery that seemed like it would be thick enough to keep out a stray raindrop or two but not so solid as to block our view of the sky above. I drove the pick-up truck back home, backed it up to the sukkah and began throwing the brush on top of the netting we'd strung across the top. Pretty soon, as I teetered on top of the pick-up truck, I started feeling itchy all over. Later that day my sister looked up at the roof -- of which I was oh so proud -- and said, "Hey El, is that ragweed up there? Don't you think it's a bad idea to put ragweed all over the roof of this thing since half of Savannah is allergic to it?!" Lord, when I signed up to marry Peter and I took all of those classes in Jewish history and tradition, no one gave me any guidance in this area!

By the time the holiday started, our sukkah was finally built - and I was seriously wondering how much fun this holiday would be - was it really worth all of the effort to put up this structure in the backyard when we had a perfectly good kitchen ten feet away?! Peter had such fond memories of this holiday but I honestly couldn't understand why. Ok, perhaps I could understand how folks might enjoy eating out of doors for a change in NYC where the caretaker of the synagogue puts up the sukkah every year. But this seemed too much work and too little pay off.

Until that first night of the holiday when my father (very Episcopalian, very Southern, mind you) sat down in the sukkah for dinner next to our friends Moti and Eva. Moti was a teacher from Israel working in the Savannah that year. His wife Eva is French and they have three beautiful children who at this point were helping to decorate the sukkah with our daughter Isabelle. Across the table was our friend Jessica who had come for the holiday from LA. Next to her was our ten year old neighbor Whitney, a black Baptist who had never met any Jews before but who had tirelessly helped us build the sukkah that week.

As I looked around our sukkah, I remembered what this holiday was truly all about. I remembered being at Union Theological Seminary and sitting with rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary and singing psalms together in Latin and in Hebrew to the same tune. It was a little slice of heaven. And there have been Jewish liturgists all along who have used the term "sukkat shalom," a shelter of peace, as a euphemism for the world to come, for heaven.

I remembered that bringing "all the nations" together under one roof, one tent, one sukkah - and rejoicing in the ways that God has sustained us and brought us to this moment - THIS is what Sukkot is all about. Jewish tradition has it that when the Messiah comes and ushers in the world to come, when the rest of the Jewish holidays aren't needed anymore, the holiday of Sukkot will remain. And we will all, Jews and non-Jews alike, celebrate because God's sukkat shalom has finally come to shelter all peoples and all nations.

For a few moments I saw that our little sukkah had been transformed into a sukkat shalom too. And I chuckled to myself as I remembered the wasp nests, the arguments, and the ragweed already making my Dad sneeze. Because building a shelter of peace, of wholeness, of shalom, of salaam, is not an easy thing. In fact it's a hard thing.

When we wake up each morning to a world torn apart by poverty, by terrorism, by hunger, and by racism, and we resolve to do something about building this shelter of peace in our families, in our lives, and in our world, we will encounter those literal and figurative wasp nests and marital spats. We will certainly stumble upon things to which we are "allergic." Conflict is simply a part of the game. But somehow we have to continue building, nail by nail, project by project. And along the way I feel sure that we will catch glimpses of that sukkat shalom right in front of our very eyes...probably when we least expect it.

What's the next nail that you will drive home to build the great sukkat shalom?