I spent the morning of October 27, 2019 taking down my sukkah.
Leviticus 23:42-3 tells us that God commands us to dwell seven days in the sukkah so that future generations will remember that God made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when God redeemed them from Egypt. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz comments that this period in Jewish history is like the childhood of the nation, quoting Jeremiah 2:2:
“I counted in your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride; How you followed me in the wilderness in a land not sown.”
For Steinsaltz the period of the Exodus is marked by a youthful, innocent love between the people and God, unencumbered by mundane distractions and burdens of working land, paying debts, and maintaining possessions. The Children of Israel have nothing to concern themselves with other than their relationship with God.
In such a time, it is possible to be totally present, to experience real, complete joy. The kind of joy experienced by children. If you have children, you have likely seen unadulterated joy – the child at Disney World, the child when you give them a balloon, the child when they bite into a piece of chocolate. Or even, and this I think is what Steinsaltz is really referring to, the child when they run to greet a parent returning home from work, plastering themselves to the adult’s legs before the bags, coat, and keys have even been dropped.
It is for this reason that in a different passage about the holiday of Sukkot we are commanded, “V’samachta b’chagecha . . . v’hayyita ach sameach.” “Rejoice on your holiday and be ach happy.” Ach is a strange word, which is why I’ve left it untranslated for a moment. It could either mean, “entirely,” alluding to the precise kind of unbridled happiness I described above. Or, it could mean something along the lines of “but” – in other words, “you should nevertheless be happy.” Those future generations would no longer be in the devotion of their youth, their nuptial bliss. They would have business deals, ill relatives, marauding cattle thieves, and a host of other annoyances and tragedies to deal with. The verse is therefore saying to them, “Nevertheless, you should be completely happy. Forget all of those other things; for seven days you must rejoice! Get to it!”
Those seven days are over, as are the two additional days of joy and celebration that follow. We are back to the grind. And so it happened that on the morning of October 27th, the one year anniversary of the worst tragedy my neighborhood has ever seen, and the thirtieth anniversary of the tragic murder of my classmate Karen Hurwitz, I was physically dismantling the temporary dwelling of joy on my deck.
The basic design of my sukkah is PVC pipes, tarps, and bamboo mats held together with PVC joints and cable ties. Dismantling it begins with taking a garden clipper to the cable ties one by one. At certain points, there are often multiple overlapping layers, or extra ties securing a tarp both to the horizontal and to the vertical pipe, or attaching lights and decorations.
As I worked I noticed something that had never caught my attention in years past: when I would clip one tie, it often seemed I had done nothing at all. The pieces would hang in mid-air undisturbed, testing my faith in gravity. Only when I made two or three more snips, cutting all the ties would the tarp flap open, or the strand of lights drop agonizingly toward the deck, daring me to catch them before they shattered on the wood. Likewise, when I got to the end and took a hammer to the frame to open the joints of the pipes, disconnecting just one elbow or tee left the skeletal walls still upright. Only when I had separated an entire panel from the structure did it topple forward onto the boards like a fainting drunk.
The sukkah is an inherently unstable structure, so much so that during the grace after meals on the holiday we bless, “The Merciful One who will right for us the fallen sukkah of King David.” I once received a text message from my wife 90 minutes before the holiday started imploring me to come home at once because the wind had literally folded the entire thing flat, like a broken-down cardboard box. These pipe joints and cable ties are a flimsy defense against the heavy rains and high winds that often hit Pittsburgh in October (to say nothing of the snows in places like the Twin Cities or Toronto). The bamboo roof is intentionally porous to the elements, so that the rules of the holiday actually have a built-in excuse to let you eat inside if there are raindrops visibly falling in your soup.
Yet taken together, all of those little connections keep it standing. This year I lashed one side to the drainpipe, one to the planter box, and one to the basketball hoop for good measure, and it held. And in that place, despite illness, a flood of work which threatened to drown me, and the looming commemoration of all that was evil in the world, when I was in there I was ach sameach – nevertheless completely happy.
So it was striking to see that my happy place did not fall apart with the loss of one or two of its connections – but with the removal of more and more of them, I was soon left with just its bones, and then with a disassembled array of parts drying in the sun.
It’s been a hard year, but one of the overarching themes of the anniversary commemoration was that we are strong as a community. Rabbi Joseph Ozarowsky, whose book To Walk In God’s Ways was one of my first stops on the journey to Healing People, Not Patients, taught us that when Isaiah 40:1 says, “Comfort, comfort, my people,” what he means is “Comfort one another, and be comforted by one another.” Individual connections were destroyed in the shooting, but in this neighborhood there existed so many connections, including hundreds I have only realized existed in the aftermath, that we could not be broken. The sukkah did not fall down because there were so many ties holding it together. In the wake of the shooting I was able to call my second son to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah, and feel true joy in that moment, because those ties were enough to hold it all together.
I liken it to human balance. There are three components to being able to keep yourself upright: vision, the balance organ known as the vestibule in your inner ear, and proprioception, which is the sense of knowing where your joints are positioned (for example, is your foot flat on the ground or are you standing on your toes?). The body does not need all three of these to keep you balanced; any two will suffice.
Years ago, a doctor named Romberg figured out that if you deprive a sighted person of their vision by having them close your eyes, you can then confirm that both of the other components are working. To do Romberg’s test, a person must stand with their feet flush together. As my own Rabbi, Seth Adelson, has recently taught me, this stance, the regel yeshara or “fused leg” of the angels, is the way we are supposed to stand when reciting especially holy texts, including the Kaddish for mourners. In addition to mimicking the angels, it is also an inherently unstable stance – as is fitting when we are speaking words of holiness while mourning. Yet according to Romberg, if both the vestibule and our proprioception are working, if the nerves are connected properly, we will not fall.
Romberg also forbids people to hold their arms out to the sides to aid in balance. What to do if someone starts to fall? That is the job of the healer: they must keep their hands just an inch or so away from the person’s shoulders. The healer catches the person who can no longer hold themselves upright.
One of the most dangerous things I encounter in my healing work is people who do not have sufficient connections, where one snip, one loose joint is enough to bring their whole shelter crashing down. Even a missed bus connection, on the way to a job interview or to a court hearing, can destroy everything. When they experience trauma, like the death of a loved one or being assaulted by a domestic partner, there are no walls surrounding them to protect them from the aftermath. A person with diabetes gets an infection, has a toe amputated, and stays a week in the hospital. When the wound heals and the infection is cleared, who will they go home to? How will they cope with mobility, grocery shopping, showering, and food prep if they are going home to an isolated, and empty, apartment?
You may have a picture in your mind of the type of person I mean; discard it. We can all readily call to mind some of the factors that might leave a person vulnerable, lacking a sukkah to hide in on a bad day (see my earlier post “One Thing I Ask”); poverty and disadvantaged minority status are two of the most obvious. Yet within those groups are some who are incredibly resilient to trauma, because other connections make up for those which they lack in the financial or social status categories.
Family, close-knit neighborhoods, worship communities, professional associations, old army buddies and roommates are just a few of the places where people might find the ties they need to hold them together in a crisis. The more of these they have, the more intricate the network, the harder it is for one cut to destroy the whole web. Should these disappear, being in the cultural majority, educated and well-off may not be enough to provide the support someone needs.
Think for a moment about overcrowding. We are used to thinking of this as a public health hazard. Refugee camps are among the most overcrowded places in the world, and filled with infectious disease, potential violence, and safety hazards like fire. Yet they are strangely protective against this danger we have been discussing. For the elderly, the mentally ill, and the disabled, being in a crowded environment like that means never being alone. Someone is always present to watch over them, keep them from harming themselves, and sit with them when they become confused, afraid or sleepless.
In America, that thick blanket has been pulled away. Even in densely packed city neighborhoods, the walls between apartments and colder weather mean that those refugees now have to go out of their homes looking for connection, and the families that they live with must travel “far” from home, even if just a bus ride, to find work. They are alone at home for hours at a time, not understanding how to go places, or what to do when they get there, or how to use the modern appliances (including gas stoves!) in their homes. In isolation, they forget things, become afraid, and fall ill. With time, their family members earn enough money to leave the city and move to a suburb, if only a few minutes’ drive away, and they are even more isolated.
This dependence on closeness is not obvious, especially to a Westerner so steeped in “America=Good; refugee camp=bad.” In the previous post I referenced, I suggested asking every person I provide care to what their achat shaalti is – what is the one thing that they need most, or are most worried about, right then. After thinking about the clipped connections, and the sea of used cable ties now covering my deck, I have a second question to ask: what is your sukkah made out of? What are the connections that keep you safe, the resources you turn to in hard times, and the places you seek comfort? For that matter, who do you share your unbridled joy with?
If the answer is, “I don’t know,” then the next question should be, “How can I help you build one?”
I have some cable ties I can lend you…