By Lisa Septimus
Sukkot was less than a week away, and we still didn’t have decisions on some possible programs. “It’s too early to make a decision,” said one shul leader, noting the irony with the holiday less than a week away. In a time of uncertainty, decisions are made and changed and often not even attempted until the last minute.
The holiday of Sukkot is called by Chazal “Zman Simchateinu, the time of rejoicing,” and Devarim (16:14–15) describes the holiday, “V’samachta b’chagecha … you shall rejoice in your festival … v’hayita ach sameach … and you shall have nothing but joy. Simchat yom tov figures prominently in all the yomim tovim but Sukkot has the distinction of being described first and foremost as a holiday of joy and a time of joy.
In Vayikra (23:39–43) we are told the reason for our celebrating. Sukkot marks the very end of the summer harvest, and we sit in the sukkah to remember that G-d made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when He took them out of Mitzrayim and led them through the midbar. It makes sense for the end of the harvest to be celebratory, but it is less obvious precisely what we are celebrating by remembering the sukkot from the midbar.
The Gemara in Sukkah (11b) records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva about the sukkot. Rabbi Eliezer says that we are commemorating the ananei kavod, the clouds of glory, that surrounded Bnei Yisrael on their journey through the desert and served to guide them when they traveled. Rabbi Akiva says that we are commemorating the actual sukkot — the temporary dwelling huts that Bnei Yisrael lived in for their 40 years in the desert. However, in addition to the cloud or the huts, we are recalling that Bnei Yisrael had to wander through a harsh, unsettled environment, where, despite G-d’s presence, they clearly felt scared and vulnerable.
Many of the stories in Sefer Sh’mot and Bamidbar describe their fear and uncertainty that often led to complaining. It therefore seems ironic to describe the holiday that commemorates this experience as Z’man Simchateinu. Furthermore, our own observance of Sukkot, while joyous, is also rife with vulnerability, as we seem subject to the weather conditions. Will it rain, be too windy, be too cold, be too hot? Will we be able to sit in the sukkah, will our decorations fall, will the schach get ruined? All of us can recall a time when we had to make last-minute decisions where to set up for a meal or when we had to switch a table set outside for inside or vice versa. Who can celebrate properly while worried about the unknown?
In this year more than ever, we feel vulnerable and unsure as we negotiate and renegotiate what is safe, what is permitted, and how to appropriately experience the simcha of this chag. On a deeper level, we ask ourselves, can we feel the joy in Hashem’s protection in a time when we ourselves feel vulnerable?
Sukkot is precisely about celebrating our connection to Hashem in the face of that uncertainty. During Sukkot we make ourselves more vulnerable to be able to connect more deeply with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Faith and feeling connected to G-d does not mean that we know we will always be safe and granted good in our lives. With ideal faith we connect with our Creator, we appreciate what we have today, we observe the mitzvot, and deepen our relationship. We pray and plan for the future, even though we know that in life there are no guarantees. We take a leap of faith and invest further in our relationship with Hashem despite not knowing what the next year brings. Sukkot teaches this lesson for our relationship with Hashem, but it should be applied to other relationships as well.
Our relationship to Hakadosh Baruch Hu is often compared to that between husband and wife, and the sukkah is often compared to the chuppah, both deliberately designed to be temporary and somewhat vulnerable.
Many people think of marriage as providing unconditional love and security. When partners focus only on security at the expense of intimacy and growth, they risk failing to allow their bond to deepen, instead opting for something shallow and safe. Many partners avoid topics of conflict, avoid discussing their unpleasant feelings and their insecurities in an effort not to rock the boat.
Psychologist and marriage counselor David Schnarch says, “When we start shading what we say to keep our relationship calm, we destroy intimacy and desire and diminish our sense of security and self-worth.” Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, similarly observes, “When it comes to love, vulnerability is the price of admission; we risk our hearts in any intimate relationship, and no one can guarantee that they won’t break it.”
Many of us were raised to think of the marriage as putting a strong roof above our heads. Sukkot teaches us that this assumption is wrong. As many rabbis say under the chuppah, a couple’s home should be like a chuppah. You build a home together, but the goal isn’t security and a strong roof. It is the commitment to sit in that home even if it lets in a little wind or heat and even if you never know when it might rain, or, even worse, blow away.
Brene Brown, professor and author, has written extensively on the topic of vulnerability. In her book Daring Greatly, she writes, “I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. … With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow — that’s vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed.”
Many of us have never felt more vulnerable in our relationships with others and with G-d as we do now. This pandemic has disrupted our religious routines, the way we socialize, and the time we spend with our spouses. It can be uncomfortable. It can be scary. But it can also be beautiful, loving, and joyful. As we enter this z’man simchateinu, we will sit in our sukkot and connect with our loved ones and with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and feel their presence even during these uncertain times.
Lisa Septimus is the yoetzet halachah of the Five Towns, rebbetzin of Young Israel of North Woodmere, and teaches limudei kodesh at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School.