We are in the midst of celebrating the 7-day holiday of Sukkot, the Jewish “Harvest Festival”. After all the fasting and atoning and spiritual soul-searching we are supposed to do during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot which comes just three days after Yom Kippur, is a time of great joy and exuberance. We build temporary houses, sukkahs, (which translates to ‘booth’ or ‘hut’) to commemorate the shelters the Jews lived in during the 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus. They also symbolize the “Clouds of Glory” that protected them during their journey. Another aspect of these ‘dwellings’ is they recall the temporary shacks that farmers built in the fields and lived in during the harvest. We are commanded to “dwell” in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday. The sukkah takes many forms; it can have four walls, three walls, or two and a half walls. The walls can be made of wood, cloth, plastic, grass mats, almost anything. The roof, however needs to be covered with branches, palm fronds, bamboo mats, corn stalks, pine boughs; there is a lot of leeway here too. But the roof cannot be nailed down, there must be spaces enough to see the sky and it must be of plant origin; no visqueen or plywood allowed. The whole point is that the sukkah is fragile, impermanent, and transitory. The idea is that even though we are removed from the comfort and protection of our concrete walls and shingled roofs, we are still under god’s protection wherever we are.
The holiday is fraught with symbols and symbolism beyond the sukkah itself. There is the lulav, made from a palm shoot, a bunch of brook-willow leaves and a bunch of myrtle leaves bound together. There is the etrog, or citron, a corrugated yellow football-shaped fruit. These four species have numerous symbolic meanings you can read about here.
We eat the seven species of fruit listed in the Torah; wheat, barley, figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates and olives. Fruits that grew in Israel when the Jews came to claim their homeland after those forty years of wandering.
We take all our meals in the sukkah. Each evening we welcome supernal visitors, the ushpizin, as guests. Part of the whole point of Sukkot is to have guests come to the sukkah both human and spiritual. These ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David have their own unique merits and divine energies. They all come every night, but there is a ‘leader’ each night and on that night we reflect on the individual attribute of that leader. Abraham is kindness, Isaac is strength, Jacob is beauty, harmony, and truth, Moses is victory and endurance and so on. Last night, Shabbat, it was Jacob’s turn. We dined with our family and close friends, and when I began to speak about the ushpizin, and Jacob, I broke down. Jacob, our Jake was beauty and harmony and truth. He brought so much beauty into this world, was so beautiful. He had a way of creating harmony and unity wherever he went. I couldn’t say for sure that Jake was there last night. Sometimes I have a distinct sense of his presence. Last night it wasn’t as strong as other times, but I can’t say for sure that he wasn’t either. I think he was there with his own posse of ushpizin.
I didn’t grow up with this holiday, my parents never built a sukkah. It wasn’t until Jake came along that we began to observe this wonderful occasion. The sukkah we have is a kit of sticks and bolts we got when Jake was a toddler. One year, the temple we belonged to back then, nearly twenty years ago, made these kits as a fund-raiser and we helped assemble the kits. We bought one for ourselves and have been building it every year since. It has gone through many changes. We enlarged it, made it a little shorter, the walls went from bed sheets, to beach mats and bamboo, to custom sewn canvas panels. The roof is usually made of long palm fronds, but in years past Ficus branches and pine boughs had to serve. Every year we would go through the last-minute panic of procuring enough greenery to cover the roof until our friend found a secluded palm garden where we can trim the needed number of fronds.
This year, we weren’t sure if we would, if we could, even build the sukkah. It was such a happy family activity for so many years. Jake’s absence makes it so difficult to relive those days, days we will never have again. A few days before Yom Kippur, I had a flash of revelation. We will build the sukkah and Jake will come to visit us. We put it together on Sunday, the day after Yom Kippur, and had it finished, wired, and roofed by Monday. A new record for timeliness.
The amazing thing about our sukkah, any sukkah, is that during the days of the holiday there is a tranquility and comfort present. Sitting in the sukkah during the day, the unbleached canvas walls glowing in the afternoon sun, the little specks of sunshine leaking through the palm-thatched roof, the sound of the nearby fountains, the music of the chimes, all blend together in a peaceful calmness, a sense of repose, a restful retreat from the maelstrom of our lives. It is hard to imagine how a simple little canvas and wood shack can create such a sense of well-being, if even for a moment. We tend to leave it up for a few days after the end of the week, but what is curious, when the holiday is over that tranquility isn’t present. It is just a little hut with some drying palm fronds overhead.
So this year, our celebration is muted. There is little joy in our lives still. Even though it is nearing ten months, it seems only yesterday we were having lunch with Jake, munching pastrami sandwiches. Just a few hours ago we were watching the sun break over the third fairway as the morning mist dissolved in the golden light. Just a minute ago I was sitting on his bed, playing “Mr. Tambourine Man” as he dozed off. Just a second ago I held him in my arms for the first time, late that August night in 1989. Where did the time go? Where did Jake go? How will we get through these coming seconds, minutes, hours, days and years without him? One tick of the clock at a time. That is the only way I know how to do it.