The Sukkah: Exile and Joy - Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski
Sometimes we might feel that the festivals are rather like London buses – we wait for ages and then several arrive at once. But the appearance of Sukkot just four days after the conclusion of Yom Kippur is carefully calculated. We emerge from Yom Kippur elated, eager to tap into the potential of a new year that can now begin in a spirit of reconciliation with God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. But that sense of connection and wholeness won’t last without a vehicle to contain and integrate those feelings – this is Sukkot, and particularly the Sukkah itself.
The Sukkah represents the fragility and impermanence of life, something we contemplate deeply on Yom Kippur, but don’t experience in reality until Sukkot. The festival is timed to coincide with the onset of autumn ensuring that the weather is unpredictable and there’s even a prayer that suggests that living in the Sukkah is a kind of temporary exile, geared to help us reflect on life’s aspirations and priorities.
A number of years ago, I had an extraordinary personal experience on Sukkot that really brought home this message.
On one of the non-festival days, I was too tired to join my family on an outing, so while they were out, I dragged my mattress into the Sukkah for a snooze. Later, refreshed and ready to continue with my day, I found myself unable to return to the house – the back door was mysteriously locked from the inside, the keys in the lock and my phone on a table.
I was certain that if I could get into the front garden, I could get into the house using a combination lock. With the help of a ladder, I had managed to perch on the lintel when the ladder fell back into the garden. I scrambled down into the front garden, where, inexplicably, I found the front door locked. I was now standing in the front garden in soggy socks and pyjamas unable to get into either the house or back into the garden. Contemplating the possibility of a further couple of hours of this situation, I hid behind a car, hoping for some kind of solution.
Then a neighbour noticed me and insisted that I come and sit in his Sukkah rather than crouch behind the car. I accepted his invitation, which included a drink and the loan of a sweater and a coat. I then realised that I didn’t know my wife’s mobile number, so I had to call my parents for help. The conversation began a little like this: ‘hello, I’m sitting in a neighbour’s Sukkah wearing my pyjamas.’ When they stopped laughing, they put me in contact with my wife, who was about an hour away. Two hours after being locked out, my wife returned and admitted a rather damp and bedraggled rabbi to the house.
What had happened? It turns out that a musician (an old friend) booked to play at a Shul event that evening had attempted to deliver his equipment. When no-one answered, he helped his assistant climb the side-gate and discovered to his delight that the Belovskis had been foolish enough to leave the back door unlocked. He entered the house, opened the front door and unloaded his kit. As I was heavily asleep and wearing earplugs, I heard none of this. Assuming that he was doing me a favour, he locked the front and back doors before leaving, trapping me in the Sukkah…
I have spoken many times on Sukkot about the impermanence of life, that our material possessions are ephemeral and how our security can evaporate at any moment. We know this intellectually, but, thank God, most of us rarely experience it directly, even in the smallest way. Many people around the world are displaced, unwanted, with no permanent home or much prospect of finding one, but it can be hard to identify with their experience. I often think that my brief ‘exile’ from my home has made the reality of impermanence a little easier to grasp, and Sukkot that more meaningful.
Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski
Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski, is chief rabbinic consultant of University Jewish Chaplaincy and senior rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue. He has semichah-ordination from Gateshead Yeshiva and holds degrees in mathematics (MA – Oxford), organisational psychology (MSc – City University, London) and hermeneutics (PhD – University of London). He is principal of Rimon Jewish Primary School, the rabbi of Kisharon and a faculty member of the Senior Faith in Leadership Programme. Author of or contributor to several books and hundreds of articles, he broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 2 and occasionally on Radio 4.