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Jewish Journal

Fragility Around Us

by Jane Ulman

September 19, 2002 | 8:00 pm

On Sukkot, the Torah commands us to live in booths for seven days.

As if we need these temporary huts to remind us of life's fragility.

Nevertheless, my husband, Larry, and I, along with three of our sons, dutifully haul down the disassembled pieces of our prefab sukkah from the garage rafters.

"Hey, this isn't the holiday where we're supposed to feel like slaves," complains Jeremy, 13, while carting the first load to the backyard.

"Why do we have to build our own sukkah when the Israelities had God to build theirs?" chimes in Danny, 11.

But eventually, with as much grousing and grumbling as the original Israelites, my sons deposit the redwood lattice-work panels, support slats and minibungee cords in a disorderly pile in the backyard.

My husband stares at the pieces, knowing that the sukkah, which we purchased four years ago, came with no instructions save the overly optimistic "Easy to Assemble."

But after a few false starts, the sukkah is built, never quite the same configuration as the previous year, but always rickety, vulnerable and in compliance with the talmudic requirements -- three sides and a roof that is covered with palm leaves or other organic material, allowing more shade than sun, but permitting a view of the stars at night.

"All seven days of the festival, each one should turn the hut into his permanent residence, and his house into the temporary one," the Talmud (Sukkah 2:9) tells us.

Spending time in the sukkah is supposed to remind us not to put our trust in a sturdy dwelling or a mass of material possessions that provide only the illusion of security. Rather, we should put our trust in God, who protected the Israelites while traveling in the wilderness for 40 years.

But this Sukkot, I don't feel secure in my house or my sukkah.

Not when more than 3,000 civilians, firefighters and police officers weren't safe in four airplanes, two 110-story office buildings and the Pentagon.

Not when Israelis can't ride on an Egged bus, eat in a pizza parlor or attend a Passover seder in a hotel dining room without fearing for their lives.

And not when Americans and Israelis alike wait for the next suicide bomber, chemical or biological assault or even nuclear attack.

This Sukkot, it is God's protective powers that seem illusory.

"I think God doesn't protect us because he wants us to find our own way," Danny says.

But we've been struggling to find our own way throughout history, only to encounter more enemies who want to annihilate us and more battles over our homeland. And God has stuck with us.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read during Sukkot and which normally seems incongruous with the holiday's joyous mood, is now alarmingly apropos: "Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun" (Sukkah 1:1-3).

The author of Ecclesiastes, purported to be King Solomon, points out that no matter how righteously or wickedly we live, we all come to the same end -- death. But, at the same time, the author exhorts us to live life, whatever its duration, fully and enthusiastically, for Judaism is life-affirming, not nihilistic and despairing,

Or as my son Gabe, 15, says, "Even if we don't feel safe, we must press on, just as the Jews did after Amalek, the Romans and even the Nazis. That's what Sukkot is all about."

And so this year, despite our doubts and fears, our reluctance and our half-heartedness, we press on.

We take comfort in the familiarity and the rituals of Sukkot -- building and decorating the sukkah, celebrating and eating with family and friends and taking up the lulav and the etrog.

We take comfort in the fact that the Israelites, who dealt with their share of fears and foes, eventually reached the Promised Land.

Yes, the huts poignantly remind us of life's brevity, but the holiday itself reaffirms life's permanence. For Sukkot, the most important festival mentioned in the Bible, has been celebrated by Jews around the world for over three millennia, except during the Babylonian Exile.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us, "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun" (Sukkah 3:1).

Like the Israelites, this is our season to journey in a frightening and unknown wilderness, battling an elusive and evil enemy and suffering unbearable losses. The purpose yet escapes us, as does an awareness of God's protective presence.

And like the Israelites, we hope to persevere and ultimately prevail. And to some day ritualize, commemorate and comprehend this dark period in our history.

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