(I wrote this column some time ago, as will be clear from the opening paragraph. But its message about Sukkot still fits.  Well, kind of, in that our Covid-colored world limits what we can do in a sukkah this year.  Nonetheless, the theology remains apt.)

I was caught in a traffic jam today in the rain and wondered if the
situation had any relationship with Sukkot.

The relationship may be a large stretch of the imagination, but let me see
if I worked out anything that makes any kind of sense.

What is a traffic jam?  It’s advanced technology meeting badly planned civil engineering, or poor city planning, or an unexpected population growth. All of these internal combustion engines burning fossil fuel stuck on a highway wastefully spewing hydrocarbons into the air (a chemical reaction that cost the owner plenty to initiate, especially these days). Some of us knowingly face this situation daily, living with a commute theyknow will entail being part of a parking lot some of the time between home
and office.

Many, if not most of us, sit alone in our cars, listening to the radio or making the odd phone call on our cell phones, patiently awaiting a break in the traffic so we can move on to the next delay. And even though we’re alone, the situation is anything but peaceful and meditative (and if it is, how unfortunate that we have to find our moment of peace while inhaling carbon monoxide). Sitting in a traffic jam hardly allows for one to meet one’s self in a healing fashion.  What better symbol is there for the modern condition?  Alone, trapped, and going nowhere fast.

Sukkot is the exemplar of simplicity.  We don’t sit in a car, we sit in a booth. We don’t sit enclosed in a car; we sit exposed to the elements. We don’t sit anxiously awaiting our chance to crawl the next mile, or the next hundred yards. Unless we really need the comforts of home, the most technological item in the sukkah is an electric line dragged in from the house in order to afford a bit of electric lighting.  Can’t complain about that. Adding more comforts of home than electric light might surpass the spirit of the thing. Our time in a sukkah is meant to be simple.

Sukkot marks the end of the high holy day cycle, coming right on the heels of Yom Kippur. Where the mood of Yom Kippur was somber if optimistic, and above all individualistic, the mood of Sukkot is communal, and celebratory.  Where the theology of Yom Kippur places the individual face to face with God as an individual. Sukkot’s theology places us in the
center, in the sukkah, with God surrounding us.

This we acknowledge of course with the waving of the lulav.  Where the I meets the thou in a safe and warm space during Yom Kippur, on Sukkot we greet God while in a hut that is by Jewish law wide open to the elements. It’s a shelter that in inclement weather affords little shelter indeed. This condition contains, if not a measure of risk, then at least the threat of
discomfort.  Anyone who has eaten in a sukkah when rain began falling, or braved an early cold snap to have at least a snack in their hut, knows what I’m talking about.

But above all sitting in a sukkah is the diametric opposite of sitting in a traffic jam.  The sukkah is purely natural, usually unsophisticated, surely untechnological, quiet, calm, peaceful, and non-polluting. Even the most classy of these structures is primitive by nature.

And what do we do in our sukkah?  Well, first we have to build it.  This is usually an adult activity with the kids looking on, perhaps handing us a screw or the screwdriver, while we try to remember from last year how we put the blessed thing together.  Then the kids get into the act by decorating it.  No matter how simple or unrecognizable the art work, each
picture finds its place of honor on one of the walls of the sukkah.

When finished, there is that sense of accomplishment: we have actually put the thing up, and it hasn’t fallen, and, with luck, it won’t fall.  We probably don’t think much about the Master of the Universe during the building part, unless it’s to thank God for another successful go at construction.  That is, we don’t think much about God until we reach that concluding moment when we see that, with God’s help (for without God’s help how many modern Jews would succeed at such a project?) we’re builders once more.

Then we invite guests to join us, lots of guests, for a meal, for a snack, for a l’chayyim, for a chat. The religiosity that characterizes this aspect of the sukkah experience is by nature social.  We meet God in the sukkah while conversing with our neighbor.  In the sukkah we encounter God over tea and cookies. In this aspect of the sukkah experience, we re-learn
that we are meant to be social creatures, that life is to be lived with others.  Each moment in the sukkah with friends and family becomes a brief mini-vacation.

Then there are the moments when the sukkah becomes our fortress of solitude, when we venture into it alone, perhaps to wave the lulav and etrog, perhaps to eat a meal when no one else is around.  Regardless, surely such moments are anti-traffic jam moments, moments of serenity, moments when we can banish worry, and be one with the One who thought this whole thing up.  Pretty crafty this God of ours, no?

My wife, Betsy Gamburg, who was present at all of our high holiday services, pointed out to me that I omitted an important “thank you” at the end of Neilah.  So I do so here.

Our Kol Nidre service began with our congregant Julie Rosenfeld on her violin playing a beautiful rendition of that iconic opening of the most important service of the year.

So thank you, Julie. I hope we have the opportunity to work together again soon.

Hag sameach,
Rabbi Phil M. Cohen