The past few weeks have been difficult. Amid our soul-searching over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we continued to hope, pray and aid those who suffered loss of life and property due to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. We also continue to pray for those who were injured and mourn for those who were killed in Charlottesville, Virginia in mid-August. Although the High Holidays focus on self-reflection and introspection, we are not so vain that we ignore the tribulations of others in our global community.
Despite the challenges of the past few weeks, the fall Jewish calendar does not cease to bring us new days and new holidays. Indeed, the holiday of Sukkot is upon us. The rabbis refer to Sukkot as z’man simhateinu, the time of our rejoicing. This year, however, how is it possible that we rejoice? We certainly celebrate our renewal of life and spirit after Yom Kippur. But, enveloped in a world of suffering, how can we make this holiday a time of simhah?
We need look no further than the sukkah itself for guidance. The sukkah is a temporary hut, one which, by all counts, should not withstand the fickle and unpredictable changes of Wisconsin weather in the fall. Flimsy and hastily erected, the sukkah – almost miraculously! – reminds us every year that it can withstand anything that threatens to destroy it. Sometimes it shakes; sometimes it lifts gently off the ground; and other times it might even topple over. Yet, with pride and defiance, with an air toward rejoicing, it stands up again each and every time – with a little assistance from us, of course – to bring delight to all.
The sukkah does not only inspire us to come together to rebuild our homes even under difficult circumstances; it also reminds us that, despite all our fears, there is hope for and confidence in safe times ahead. As a shelter, the sukkah is arguably the least effective edifice available. There are no locks, not even doors. Nevertheless, our tradition instructs us to sleep outside in the sukkah every night. In doing so, we put our faith not only in God but also in others: we avow that we are not afraid and that those who threaten us with harm will not deter us from rejoicing. Sukkot, after all, is z’man simhateinu.
As difficult as the past few weeks have been, we know that good times lay ahead and that new challenges will appear. It can disheartening if not inconceivable to look ahead to a new day with anything other than pessimism and dismay. Yet, we as Jews, defiantly and triumphantly, build our sukkot every year. And they remind us that, as often as we might get knocked down – we as individuals, we as Jews, or we as a global community – we will get back up again. And they remind us that, no matter who or what threatens us, we will not lose our faith. And they remind us that we do it all – somehow, miraculously – with simhah.
In the words of our liturgy, I pray that You, God, watch over us “ufros aleinu sukkat shlomekha – and spread over us your sukkah of peace.” May this Sukkot usher in an era of peace and comfort for those in Houston and Florida, for those in Charlottesville, and a time of joy for all of us, as well.
Hag sameah – may you have a happy and healthy holiday.
Rabbi Moishe Steigmann leads Congregation Cnesses Israel in Green Bay and he is the founder and director of The Spark Wisconsin.