The sukkah is intended to remind us of when we were taken out of Egypt. The children of Israel were grandiosely rescued from a despotic, tyrannical Pharaoh who had greedily enslaved them for generations before finally, in fits of paranoid fear, murdering all their male offspring. Chased by the Pahaoh's troops they were led triumphantly from the country through a path in a sea miraculously split before them. Once they had passed, the waters tumbled back in over the Egyptian army, eliminating it in its entirety in one glorious, fell swoop. The soldier's spoils, financed entirely by the labours of those they had been chasing, moreover, did not sink into the deep with them but were washed up on the shores for the refugees to gather.
To celebrate these awe-inspiring miracles we gather once a year in a temporary structure, symbolic of the supernatural protection and care we received then and over the years following that awesome rescue and a testament to the pillars of cloud and fire that surrounded the Israelites as they trod the desert toward their Promised Land. That the Israelites, even despite these obvious displays of raw, divine might, hardly behaved like the best of Catholics and His eternal patience with them, must be an integral part of that story.
There is nothing glorious about the sukkahs I saw this year on the Hill and nothing that even remotely evokes the dazzling magnificence of that divine deliverance. A ‘temporary structure’ as basically defined by the law has ‘to have three or more walls and get protective shading from an unconverted vegetable source. We have laws stating how high or law the walls must be but only the roof of the structure has to be temporary. A kosher sukkah must be under the open sky and then be covered by raw vegetable matter.
Like much in our society, Sukkot has become an occasion that has little to do with its original purpose. Proud sukkah owners today proudly show off how discreetly their sukkah blends in to the house as their comfortably centrally heated and air-conditioned sukkah-cum-morning room’s glass dome slides noiselessly away to reveal the open sky masked by the commercially available, perfectly stitched bamboo mat that once a year is rolled over the waiting beams to fulfil the letter, if not the spirit, of the laws.
In a grotesque parade of bad taste, most sukkot are furthermore decorated with gaudy and tacky christmas decorations, from paper apples, shiny stars and baubles to paper chains, tinsel and flashing fairy lights. Like the society around us, we seem to be intent on proving that we too can sell the soul of our traditions to Hong Kong.
The Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur period is designed to be a time for stocktaking, learning the lessons from the year past and accepting resolutions for the one upcoming. Over Sukkot we are reminded that though we can be a stiff-necked people God still loves us and He is capable of protecting us from any threat. We learn that although we as a people can be prone to bouts of self-assured rightness these can also be suspect. We learn that we have a tendency to be argumentative and sometimes just plain obnoxious and that we have to learn to fight these urges. In short we have to remember that being religious is about more than the external trappings.
When the length of someone’s beard or his wife’s skirt becomes more important than his piety or deeds, when the shape of a Chassid's hat becomes more important than his upbringing and knowledge, when in shul you can be witness to infantile jealous bickering for the privilege of shushing people during the davening and those whose job it is to represent us seem to be more intent on furthering their own agenda, when eating kosher becomes about whose supervision you support rather than what's inside the package (or should be) one starts to wonder how much more of our religion has become just a tackily decorated temporary structure.