I was so thrilled about the prospect of building my first sukkah — the hut or booth central to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot — that I tweeted a picture of the lumber. So imagine my chagrin, when, five days into the weeklong holiday we still hadn’t managed to get the thing up.
One of the three pilgrimage holidays, the Jews of ancient times would travel to Jerusalem to observe Sukkot at the temple. But getting a sukkah up was so difficult for our family that it seemed like taking a trip to Jerusalem would have been easier than building a tiny hut on our patio in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Not that we hadn’t tried. But our trying was something of a comedy of errors, the universe conspiring against us: On the first day, a Sunday, we’d gotten the lumber home as the sunlight was waning. On Mondays, I teach a late class at the university and my husband picks up the kids from school. There was no way he could manage the kids and get the sukkah up by himself — besides, as a Muslim, the whole thing was foreign to him.
The day after, it rained.
On Wednesday, I took the drill outside to finally get started. But the bit kept dropping out.
My ancestors hadn’t had drills when they’d left Egypt and spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, erecting the temporary homes from which the holiday, Sukkot — huts or booths — takes its name.
Imagining myself an ancient Hebrew, I took a hammer and some gigantic nails and pounded out a foundation. I didn’t need a husband. I didn’t need a drill. I am a Hebrew: Hear me roar!
When it came time, however, to put up the corner posts, I realized that I couldn’t manage to hold a two-by-three-inch piece of wood upright, steady a nail and hammer it to the foundation all at once. I needed another set of hands.
The message wasn’t lost on me: Hebrew or not, no one can build a home, even a temporary one, alone.
And in the days that followed, I would learn something else — perfection isn’t the point of observing religious traditions, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Rather, observance is about giving the children — and ourselves — something to cherish, something that will remain long after the holiday itself is over, something that stays in our hearts forever.
On Thursday, I begged my husband to leave work early so we could finally get this darned thing up. He did and guess what? When we got outside, we discovered that the battery-powered drill that was working just fine Wednesday was dead.
The sukkah would have to wait at least another day. But the next day was Friday, and Shabbat — when one is forbidden from working and that includes building — would begin at sundown.
And then it was Saturday. The foundation was ready. The drill was charged. My husband was home. But I was conflicted. For one, it was still Shabbat. For two, should we even bother? Would it be some sort of transgression to put up our sukkah a full week after most Jewish families had done so?
Even though I’m pretty secular — I drive on Shabbat, I spend money, I cook, I use appliances, all things that are forbidden by religious law — building a sukkah felt like crossing the line. So, I wouldn’t touch the drill. I would direct my husband as he used the drill — much as my great-grandmother, who was an Orthodox Jew, would have her grandchildren turn on the lights for her on the Sabbath (it is ironic, of course, that she used her grandchildren as Shabbat “goys” — non-Jews who do things forbidden by religious law — even though they, too, were Jewish).
With a drill, the thing went up chik chak, in no time. Then we used a staple gun to add walls made of old sheets. All that was missing now was the roof — s’chach or secach — which according to religious law must be made from natural materials that offer shade from the sun while being open enough that one can see the stars at night.
To give my husband rest from his labor, and in hopes of finding some palm fronds, I took the kids to the beach. On the way home, we stumbled on a palm frond so massive it wouldn’t fit in my trunk. So I bent it in half and loaded it into the passenger seat, the fronds hanging into the back, tickling my children, eliciting squeals of laughter and exclamations from my 5-year-old that she and her brother had their very own sukkah in the backseat of the car.
And then, as we drove down a fancy strip in my decidedly unfancy Toyota Camry, I spied a perfect palm frond in the middle of the street. I pulled over, checked for traffic, and darted out into the road to grab it. As I hauled it to the car, some Polo shirt-wearing passersby stared at me.
“Sukkot!” I called out to them, on the off-chance they were Jewish.
I folded the palm frond in half and stuffed into the car and my children screamed with laughter. “This is what it’s all about,” I thought. “They will never forget this: The smell of the palm fronds, the memory of their meshuga (crazy) Mama loading them into the passenger seat.”
I realized that it’s more important that they get these rich, sensory experiences, than it is for them to be in sync with the calendar.
When we got home, I pulled the palm fronds out of the car while the children raced ahead to tell my husband that they’d had their own personal sukkah in the back seat the whole way home. After dragging the enormous fronds to the patio, I climbed up on a step ladder and placed them on the pine beams. A perfect fit. We were done.
That evening, we had dinner in our sukkah, as we are supposed to throughout the holiday. The hut reminded my Palestinian husband of the kind his grandfather — who had been a farmer — built in the fields to seek refuge from the midday sun. The walls billowed in the wind, like lungs expanding. I breathed along with them and slipped into the calm descending over all of us. It was magical.
“Can we eat in our hut tomorrow night, too?” my son asked as we cleared the dishes.
“Yes,” I said, already wistful that the holiday was only a week long. But that’s the point of Sukkot — among the many lessons built into the holiday, the temporary nature of the structure is a potent reminder of the fact that we’re all just passing through this life.
Like that first night, the days that followed were magical. While it rained almost all of last week — the official week of Sukkot — the skies were miraculously clear this week for our family celebration of the holiday. It felt like a sign from God himself that observing the holiday a week late was OK. Still, I felt this very Jewish twinge of guilt. Maybe we shouldn’t have done this at all? Is it better to skip the holiday altogether than to do it a week late?
I started reaching out to rabbis for answers. At first, I couldn’t get a hold of any because, adhering to the proper Jewish calendar, they were observing shemini atzeret and simchat torah, the holidays that come immediately after Sukkot. I felt then, how stepping out of the calendar put me out of sync with the community, and I wondered then about the value of observance when we were doing it alone.
Nervous about confessing my transgression, I called up Rabbi Benny Zippel in Salt Lake City. I prefaced my questions for him by babbling about getting the lumber late and being busy and the rain and our dead drill and how I couldn’t manage to put up the sukkah alone. But explaining it all only made me feel more ridiculous and more concerned that I had, indeed, committed some sort of a grave sin. A stone in my stomach, I finally asked which was worse: Not doing Sukkot at all or doing it a week late?
“Not doing it at all is worse,” Rabbi Zippel said. “Doing it at the wrong time is a step in the right direction.”
I told him how guilty I’d been feeling. “One word you need to get rid of from your system, from your DNA: guilty,” he said. “People who feel guilty end up despising and hating and getting rid of the thing that causes the guilt.”
Unintentionally, I’d touched on the theme of his Yom Kippur sermon, he added. “Why does the Jewish calendar put Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) after Rosh Hashana (the New Year)?” he asked. Why do we start the new year and then say, “‘By the way, God, I feel sorry for all the sins I did?’ In the business world, you do an inventory first — after you’ve done that, then you start the new year. We (Jews) do it backwards,” he said.
I took the bait. “Why?”
“Because if we started by trying to atone for all the things we feel guilty about, we’d never move past it.”
Rabbi Zippel continued: “First, resolve to move forward and then say, ‘While I’m moving forward there are a few things that need to be addressed.’ Resolve to make things better in the future. … Make a resolution, for Hanukkah not to be ready on time but early, days in advance.”
Feeling relaxed, I told Rabbi Zippel how Sukkot is my favorite holiday because it connects me to the way God provided for the ancient Hebrews on their journey, because of how small and humble I feel when I sit in my hut. How peaceful I feel as I contemplate my brief sojourn on this earth, my mortality.
“That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do,” he answered. “The whole idea of the sukkah is that it’s supposed to have a flimsy roof to remind us of our vulnerability, our frailty, how frail our lives are, how dependent on Hashem (God) we are. This year, with COVID, it takes on a special meaning — COVID in one way shape or form makes us realize how frail we are. We’re not invincible.”
Maybe that’s why we need to pass things on to our children, even if we do it late. We won’t last. But, hopefully, what we give them will.