Sukkot may be the most vague of Jewish holidays. We know what Passover represents: servitude and freedom. Rosh HaShanah: the New Year. But what does Sukkot, the one-week holiday in which Jews move to huts outside their home, mean? The sages are conflicted. One sage argues that the sukkah represents the Clouds of Glory that God used to protect the Jewish people as they departed Egypt. For another, the sukkah represents the actual booths the Jews built, and lived in, in the desert, after leaving Egypt. This ambiguity itself is remarkable.
This ambiguity runs deeper, to a fundamental question about the structure of the sukkah itself: Should the sukkah be permanent or impermanent? On the one hand, in order to be a legally valid sukkah, it must be a dirat ara’i, a temporary dwelling, the Talmud informs us. If the sukkah can’t stand in the wind or can’t otherwise stand for all seven days, it is invalid. On the other hand, over-permanence is also invalidating. If the walls of the sukkah are too high, the sukkah is invalid, for it is deemed too permanent, and similarly if the sukkah’s roof is too thick. The sukkah must paradoxically be both permanent and impermanent to be kosher.
The paradoxical sukkah bears a striking relevance to the current state of our world. In the tension between permanence and impermanence, the sukkah embodies much of the fragility of the COVID-19 era. What has 2020 been, if not a deep lesson on impermanence in a world falling apart? This year we have all been living in a sukkah. As our fundamental knowledge about the structure of self and society have been shaken, we have gained a forced awareness about the fragility of our world. By considering the sukkah, we can learn how to be at home in a less certain world.
So how is the sukkah’s tense relationship between permanence and impermanence balanced? The Talmud urges practitioners to “dwell as if it is your dwelling.” The sukkah, for this one week, becomes one’s permanent dwelling, and one’s home is made impermanent. Many eat exclusively in the sukkah and the more pious sleep there, engaging with this flimsy space as a permanent space, although temporally limned.
In the world of rabbinic jurisprudence, the sukkah is notable for its remarkable legal leniencies. In contrast to matzo, which is replete with Halachic maximalism, with countless possible stringencies to satisfy different legal debates and considerations, the sukkah is built upon a plenitude of leniencies. Much of the Talmudic discussion around the sukkah is preoccupied with breaches and gaps, and the ancient rabbis show considerable creativity in allowing the sukkah, ostensibly with four walls and a roof, to have far less in many situations. Have a gap in the wall? Enter Lavud, a legal fiction that allows you to consider breaches in the wall as wall. Perhaps this too is relevant to us—to weave together a world with breaches, a world that doesn’t quite come together as a complete house of narrative, we must be creative.
Looking at a broken world, a world with breaches, we can take a note from the ancient rabbis, in the creativity necessary to marry confident permanence to fragile impermanence. The sukkah dweller realizes on a cognitive level that the sukkah won’t last forever, that its brightly decorated wood walls won’t make it through the winter, but finds joy and beauty in the fragile joy of the sukkah nonetheless. We aren’t the first to need this truth; pictures of Sukkot celebrated in the postwar years in DP camps and orphanages speak to the fragile joy of the sukkah. Smiling children in decorated sukkot found joy in a broken world.
Over the past few months, we have experienced a deep shaking up of our sense of stability in this world. Questions about the institutional history of our country have risen in the popular consciousness, trusted authorities lost authority, and the safety of sociality is in question. Two terms illumine the sukkahness of 2020: Heidegger’s thrownness, or Geworfenheit, and Freud’s uncanny, or unheimlech. Thrownness: humanity’s condition of being thrown into the world. This year, we have been thrown into a world that we did not know—and most eerily, it was our own world. All that changed was our perspective, newly conscious of threats that had always lain under the surface, covered by a thin veneer of trust and willful optimism. We have been thrown even into our own homes, dwelling and working within them with greater urgency and duration than ever before.
The unheimlich, literally “unhomely,” is the uncanny, the sense of the strangely familiar, inverting heim, or home: the homely, comfortable, familiar. Put simply, the unheimlech is unfamiliarity, the unfamiliarity of revelation, the discomfort of the revelation of the concealed. (This relates to Freud’s parapraxis, the mistaken self-exposure.) In 2020, we experienced the discomfort of this revelation, as we became aware of the germs and contagions in our environments—in the very air we breathe and friends we embrace. In environments where we were once comfortable, all is now strangely unfamiliar. Masks, subtle sidewalk avoidance, slight changes that make one’s home environment feel so unknown. Departing one’s home to enter the sukkah is one such departure toward the unfamiliar, in order to discover the ultimate familiarity, the unknown truths about our own home environments.
In 2020, we have had to learn how to be at home in our homes, and in our world. What does it take to create a dwelling, a home, a world? We must learn to live with impermanence and permanence together. “Dwell as if it is permanent,” in both the sukkah and the post-COVID-19 world. An uneasy relationship, we must learn to live “as if” impermanence is permanent, and be creative in our world-making activities. Our world is like the sukkah—both impermanent structures that we treat as permanent, structures that demand creative fiction in being treated as permanent. But we deign not to be blind believers that the flimsy wood walls and bamboo roofs are the same as well-built homes; we must remember the impermanence, the hard lessons of instability that we have learned this year.
G.K. Chesterton commented that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” We traveled to a foreign land, and it was our own. The homes we inhabited so deeply have become strange in their deep intimacy with our entire life. What might we discover when we return to our own homes after leaving the sukkah of COVID-19? The journey of Sukkot is only one week, and our current journey has run far longer, yet the sukkah is a message in a bottle about the fragility of all things, and the homes we might build within that fragility.
When we move back to our homes from the sukkah, we hope to remember the lessons of the little sukkah. We remember that even sturdy structures can fall in the wind, that even the floors and roofs that keep us dry can leak, and that all things fade. Yet we have also learned that permanence can be created in impermanence, that we can dwell “as if,” adorning the narrative fragility of our lives with beauty and joy. We have encountered the uncanny, and we must find the sukkah in our own homes. Realization of the fragility of all things can motivate us to adorn our own fragile structures with greater grace and beauty. Perhaps this is why Sukkot is the vaguest of holidays: If it does indeed model a world in crisis, how could the meaning of the sukkah be clear? As our own crises continue, may we find hope within vulnerability, and be at home in our homes once more.
Yehuda Fogel is a writer and editor at 18Forty, a Jewish media company, and was formerly an editor at the Lehrhaus, an online forum for Jewish thought and ideas.