September 16, 1999
The Value of the Temporary
So have you heard the one about the two rabbis on a boat? It's actually a story told by the Talmud in its discussion of the laws of the sukkah. It seems that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Gamliel were on a boat during the days leading up to the holiday of Sukkot, and it became clear that they were not going to make it to land in time for the beginning of the festival. Rabbi Akiva sprung into action, pressing the members of the crew for a bit of lumber, some nails, and whatever other materials might be employed, to assemble a sukkah just large enough for himself and for his colleague.
It appears, though, that Rabbi Gamliel didn't join Rabbi Akiva inside the makeshift structure. As the Talmud records the telling of the story, Rabbi Gamliel was of the opinion that a sukkah had to possess the quality of permanence in order to be valid for the mitzvah: If one builds a sukkah on a boat, it needs to be able to withstand the strong gusts of the nighttime sea in order to be "kosher." There was no way at all that Rabbi Akiva's flung-together booth would survive the night, and so Rabbi Gamliel saw no point in eating inside it.
Rabbi Akiva did not disagree about his sukkah's prospects for making it through the night. Rather, he was of the opinion that when it came to the construction of the sukkah, permanence just wasn't a value. The sukkah, he understood, was one of those things that were simply destined to be but temporary. And despite this, it was something that God wanted us to build, and it was something over which we would recite a blessing of thanksgiving. Temporary things, too, can have significance, Rabbi Akiva taught. The fact that something will inevitably soon pass into memory does not render it a waste of time.
In support of Rabbi Akiva's view, we could cite a mitzvah practice that we have the chance to perform once each year. Every spring, when we see the fruit trees blossom, we are called upon to recite the following blessing. "Blessed are You God, who created a world that lacks nothing, and into which You placed beautiful creatures and beautiful trees so that people could find pleasure in them." What could be more temporary, more fleeting than blossoms? But we are instructed, by this blessing, to inhale the pleasure they bring. That pleasure, after all, is God's gift. The winds will eventually blow them away, but today they are so lovely.
The Talmud, of course, concludes the tale of the two rabbis on the boat. The night fell, and the winds gradually increased, and do you know what happened? The sukkah blew away. The next morning, Rabbi Gamliel looked at his friend and said, "So tell me, Akiva. Where is your sukkah?" The Talmud records no response from Rabbi Akiva. But I suppose that had he chosen to reply, he would have said: "My sukkah may be gone. But had I followed your counsel, Rabbi Gamliel, I never would have had a sukkah at all."
It's hard to embrace the temporary. There is pain when the temporary completes its inevitable course. Some of us decide that we're just better off resisting those joys which we know are fleeting. "Not the honey, and not the stinger," is the motto.
I struggle with this whenever our 6-year-old forgets that he's a "big boy" and slides his hand into mine as we walk together. I think to myself that I shouldn't enjoy this too much, because it's only a matter of time before it's over. But within a moment, it hits me: It's just pointless to think that way. Pointless and self-defeating. What are our lives, if not the sum total of all the temporary things?
It is true that in our tradition, we do not live for the moment. We are always bidden to work to build the future. But there is a vast difference between living for the moment and living in the moment.
Sukkot is short. Cherish every moment.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.