Sukkot and Corona: Three Major Messages
Exploring the timely relevance of this Jewish holiday.
For thousands of years Jews have observed the Torah commandment to leave the comfort and security of our homes and eat in a specially constructed hut we call a sukkah.
In this year of coronavirus, our mitzvah no longer seems strange. Thanks to legally mandated open-air dining, eating outdoors today isn’t a Jewish oddity; it has remarkably become an almost universal ideal. And that is something that the prophet Zechariah long ago predicted.
Of all the holidays on our calendar, the one the Torah singled out most strongly for worldwide significance is Sukkot. In the future it is Sukkot and the mitzvah of “out-door dining” that Zechariah (see Zechariah 14:16-18) taught will be the litmus test for all the nations of the world. All who ascend to Jerusalem on Sukkot after the Redemption, to bow before God and to celebrate together with the Jewish people, will merit great blessing – and be spared the horror of plague.
What is it about Sukkot that makes it so relevant not only for Jews but for all of humankind as well? What is the message of this holiday that demands universal recognition?
For all those whose lives have been so traumatically transformed by this dramatic shift from indoors to outdoors there are to my mind three specific ideas surrounding Sukkot that help us to understand what makes this holiday so important.
The Air We Breathe
A coronavirus story that took place in Italy a few weeks ago perhaps summarized it best.
A 93-year-old man was stricken with COVID-19 and in spite of his age he somehow survived. Upon being discharged from the hospital, he was presented with a very large bill. Part of it was for payment for the ventilator which he had been put on for one day.
Reading the amount that was due, the old man began to cry. The hospital felt a sense of compassion and told him not to worry – surely something could be worked out to reduce the cost to something more manageable. What the old man responded made the hospital workers weep.
I cry because I’ve just come to realize after all these many years on earth I’ve been breathing God’s air for 93 years, yet I have never had to pay for it.
The old man explained, “I don’t cry because of the money I have to pay. Thankfully I am able to afford it. I cry for another reason. I cry because I’ve just come to realize after all these many years on earth I’ve been breathing God’s air for 93 years, yet I have never had to pay for it. It seems it takes over €500 to use a ventilator in the hospital for one day. Do you know how much I owe God? Why haven’t I ever truly thanked Him all the days of my life for the miracle of this divine gift which I took for granted?”
There is so much in this world that we take for granted as if it were ours by automatic right or well-deserved reward. We complain about the things we lack and hardly ever take the time to thank the Almighty for the priceless favors of his divine blessings.
Eric Hoffer put it beautifully when he said the most difficult mathematics for almost all people is the ability to count their blessings.
The holiday of Sukkot is the time to acknowledge the source of “the harvest” of our lives, the divine gifts that make our lives possible and pleasurable even as, if we but choose to notice, they surround us as freely and constantly as the air we breathe every single moment.
The House We Live In
Our homes are the most obvious signs of our wealth. They represent the most obvious display to the outside world of our economic status. A mansion means we’ve made it; it is a symbol of our success.
And very often, unfortunately, its ostentatiousness goes to our heads. It misleads our egos into taking credit for financial achievements that actually have their source in heaven. Pity the poor person who makes the mistake of thinking "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me"(Deuteronomy 8:17).
Not to understand that it is the Almighty – the same one who created all of nature and the universe – who decides on the extent of our blessings is to create a divine reappraisal which may cause the richest to lose their accumulated wealth as well as their magnificent homes and estates.
Sukkot was a time of the harvest. Farmers who struggled all year were the wealthiest they would be in any other season. Precisely then the Torah commanded the Jews leave their homes to live in nothing more than a small hut. It was to understand the message that Ecclesiastes, the book of Kohelet which we read on Sukkot, expressed so succinctly by King Solomon: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. There’s a time for joy and there’s a time for sorrow. There’s a time for building and a time for destroying. The book’s conclusion is a summary of the knowledge accumulated by the wisest man on earth.. The end of the matter, when all things are heard is to revere God and to observe his laws
Houses, even if they are mansions worth countless millions, can suddenly no longer offer us any security, neither for health nor for wealth - all because of a minute virus which cannot even be seen by the naked eye.
And so Sukkot asks us to acknowledge the true source of our wealth and well-being by moving from the inside – built by us – to the outside, work of God.
A sukkah is a temporary dwelling, no different than our very lives here on earth. The wealthy farmer and the affluent 21st-century billionaire both require reminding themselves that without God our homes can quickly turn into huts and our harvests into bankruptcy.
How Much We Really Need
Joseph Heller, author of “Catch-22”, and Kurt Vonnegut were at a party given by a billionaire hedge fund manager on Shelter Island.
Kurt said, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?”
And Heller said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
Kurt wondered, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Heller said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Sukkot asks us to temporarily go outside, look around at God’s creations, “dine out doors” with your family, your children and perhaps even your grandchildren, in a sukkah from which you can gaze up, see heaven above and be reminded of God as well as your blessings.
Not a bad idea for biblically wealthy farmers and perhaps even for contemporary victims of a plague which has left us severely stricken. Sukkot, coming right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, might just also be the one Jewish holiday that has the most to teach the entire world about the real meaning of happiness and achieving true success.