Home Depot, Builder's Square and the like are busy preparing for the invasion. The Yiddish are coming! Shortly (I am writing this article during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Jews will be descending upon these stores scouring their respective aisles seeking out electric wire, lighting fixtures, lumber, nuts, bolts, screws, bamboo and even plumbing supplies. Have they all become building contractors? Have they suddenly realized the joys found in remodeling and repairing their own home? No, they are getting ready for Succos!
Once the vocation of only the fervently Orthodox, Succah building has become one of the Jewish religious rites experiencing a rebirth in American Jewry. As a child I recall visiting the Reform Temple in which my mother taught to see how the Liberal camp observed Succos. A beautifully decorated mini-Succah was constructed in front of the Ark in the Temple's Sanctuary. My mother explained to me (she was a teacher in Reform religious schools for almost 40 years and a graduate of Teacher's Institute) that Liberal Jews commemorate the Succos Holy Day in this fashion. Today, of course, not only do most Reform Congregations build a Succah, many of their members as well have adopted this ritual observance of the Holy Day in their own lives.
Succah building is now all the rage. There are canvas Succahs, wooden Succahs and plastic Succahs. They clip or snap together in minutes. We can buy ready-made schach (bamboo mats) that easily role up for storage. This year a new item on the market is the Succah sink which is easily attached to your garden hose, allowing the ritual washing of the hands to take place within the Succah without the bothersome trek to the home's kitchen for n'tilas yadayim.
There are those who have constructed Succah rooms in their homes with movable roofs to create a Succah when required. Some have even equipped these roofs with electrical motors and water detectors so that, in case of rain, these roofs close automatically, dutifully protecting the beautiful decorations found in their Succah.
Particularly this year, when Succos comes a bit late and the weather is cooler, I vividly recall the Succah my Cantor built in Manchester. It was a cold, dreary day in Manchester, the dampness getting into your very bones and, although I looked forward to the wonderful meal that Cantor Feingold's wife had waiting for us in their Succah, I dreaded sitting in the cold and damp. To my surprise I found that the bench I was sitting upon began to warm. Mendel had rigged an electric heater to care for the bone biting cold. We sat "snug as a bug in a rug" feasting upon a sumptuous banquet in his warm and cozy Succah.
And yet, all this commotion regarding Succos, all this new found religious joy in building and eating in a Succah, somehow misses the mark. Our Rabbis inform us that one of the reasons for eating in the Succah (and as some do today, sleeping in the Succah as well) is to remind the farmer, content with his ample harvest, that he did not accomplish this task alone. Nature, G‑d's handiwork, the sun, the rain and the nutrients G‑d had placed in the very soil in which his crop had grown, played a major part in his success. Sitting in the Succah, feeling the power of the elements of nature, was part and parcel of the Succah experience. It was specifically designed to humble the individual into a new realization of the magnitude of G‑d's involvement in his/her life and to reinvigorate Faith in the Alm-ghty as a personal G‑d playing a distinct role in our daily experience. The conscious awareness of G‑d's sway over our daily existence, our dependence upon His beneficence is an integral part of the Succos Holy Day.
Perhaps our Rabbis should now require us to stand on the shore of Lake Michigan on a frosty Succos day. The cold biting wind, the rise and fall of the lake and the power with which the water crashes against the shore, would remind us all of the frailty of human life and the dependency we have upon our Heavenly Father. Our electronics, the wonderful devices which modern man has created now employed in the construction of our ultra-modern, weather-proof Succahs, would be seen in proper perspective. The majesty of G‑d, His sway over our daily lives, perhaps then would become once again an integral element of the Succos observance.
Don't misunderstand me. The joy, the thrill of Judaism experienced by young and old in Succah construction is wonderful! It is a sign of the future that more and more of our brethren realize that the beauty of Judaism is found in its physical details and observance and not merely in its philosophy. That ever-greater numbers of Jews in America are embracing the physical Mitzvah as a means to express their Judaism surely bodes well for our collective future. Yet, there was something about that steaming bowl of chicken soup on a cold and damp Succos eve - the warmth of the "Jewish panacea" as we held the hot bowl in our shivering hands as its contents, that golden elixir of life, entered our system on a cold wet Succos evening - that made all who ate in a Succah a little more sensitive to the presence of G‑d. As the steam rose from our respective bowls we sat quietly enjoying our soup and yet vividly experiencing the power of nature, the power of G‑d in His creation. It truly was a wonderful experience sadly a bit lost in the tumult of modern day Succah building.
May I suggest that each of us take a few moments in our respective Succahs this year to reflect upon this important element in the Succah experience? The sense of G‑d's power in our lives, His support at every turn, is something we must recapture in the modern world. Enjoy your Succah!