SPITE AND JOY

I published an article in this month’s Commentary Magazine with my colleague Rabbi David Wolkenfeld.  It’s a response to author Michael Chabon’s provocative speech at HUC in May.

Chabon argues for breaking down walls; I argue for the usefulness of good walls. I bring this up now both because a Sukkah requires – 3 good (pause) walls, and also because of Chabon’s tone throughout his speech – which some might term a wall. He uses a different term, aftselaskhis – spite.

Chabon writes about his rejection of Jewish observance, as follows:

I stopped lighting candles. I didn’t bother with the bedikat chametz. When the next High Holidays rolled around, I stayed home. On Yom Kippur I fasted, maybe because I wanted to show myself, or my ancestors, or the God I don’t believe in, that my non-participation was not a matter of indolence or physical weakness. Or maybe I just did it aftselakhis—out of spite.

There’s a lot of aftselakhis out there in the world. I’m not even going to talk about American politics. There’s also a certain amount of aftselakhis on Succot. Sukkot – can create a lot of anger, resentment and frustration:

 

I’m not sure how many of you have had the following experience. You wake up on a morning of sukkot - the forecast calls for rain – you look outside – clouds but no rain. Then you have to decide, do we set up for lunch inside the sukkah or inside the house. You discuss the forecast – you do a cost-benefit analysis – you argue with your spouse – the one thing that you do not do – is experience any joy!

 

It’s almost like Hashem, gave us this scenario – aftselakhis.

 

I’m not sure how many of you have had the following experience. You bring your lulav and esrog to shul – you’ve got to get the thing ready from the fridge, you’re carrying the lulav, hadasim and aravot bag in one hand and the esrog box in the other – and you run out of hands to carry the machzor. You spend five minutes trying to find a place to leave your lulav and esrog at shul, so you end up falling behind the congregation in davening, and then with your machzor open during hallel on your forearms – you try to shake the lulav and esrog – and wouldn’t you know it the esrog slips – it crashes to the ground and of course – God picks the one fruit with a small stick at the end called a pitom that pops right off – the one thing that you do not do – in that moment– is experience any joy!

 

It’s almost like Hashem, gave us this scenario – aftselakhis.

 

I’m not sure how many of you have had this experience. You build a beautiful sukkah – you prepare a lovely yom tov meal – you invite guests. The wind comes and blows off half your schach. You cramp your whole family and your guests into a corner of the sukkah and – the one thing that you do not do – in that moment– is experience any joy!

 

It’s almost like Hashem, gave us this scenario – aftselakhis.

 

And don’t say that I am over dramatizing this problem: The Talmud gives the following parable:

 

To what might rain in the sukkah be compared? It is comparable to a servant who comes to pour wine for his master and his master pours a jug of water on the servant’s face and says to him: “I do not want your service.”

 

Sounds a little spiteful, doesn’t it?

Yet, with all this anger, resentment and frustration – the Torah calls sukkot zman simchateinu – the time of our joy.

Where’s the happiness? I’m not happy?

 

Here’s the happiness. The precarious qualities of sukkot are features and not bugs.  There is a lesson in all the time and energy to build a sukkah, knowing it might rain. There’s a lesson in all the time and energy to obtain a esrog, knowing that it might drop. And – contained therein is a secret to happiness.

 

Life is imperfect, and life is still good. A Sukkah is an imperfect structure, and in that very reality is a good. RH and YK have a problem. They set our sights too high. We feel like we can actually be angels. We believe that we can actually fix the world. We can be perfect people.

 

Yet, these high sights create the potential for disappointment. We might say, “We’ve been doing tikkun olam for 30 years - and the world’s not getting fixed – it’s getting worse – so there’s no point to anything.” On some level, that’s why Michael Chabon has rejected Israel and Judaism.

 

Tikkun Olam is nice. But it becomes problematic when it believes that the world is perfect-able. It’s like spiritual consumerism. There’s always another evil to protest and another important cause to join. Sukkot is a spiritual corrective – a spiritual minimalism. Go into a simple sukkah - a temporary and unfixable existence. Go into it and enjoy it.

 

The schach of the Sukkah must be gidulo min hakarka and eino mekabel tumah. We can’t use durable materials – we must use transient and fragile organic stuff. We use leaves and branches that wither and die. We experience the message that everything is fleeting and that we too cannot be everything to everyone – forever.  Sukkot lowers our expectations and demands that we put away our aftzelaches. In this realization, in these lowered expectations, there is JOY.

We experience joy in our moments in the sukkah, rather than feel dissatisfied that there are moments when we cannot be inside. The experience is not so much one of going without pleasure as about savoring each moment of pleasure rather than racing on to the next more perfect one.

 

If RH and YK say that we have control of our destiny - Sukkot says yes- but not entirely.

 

The world is full of difficult realities. It sometimes rains. Things fall apart. AND – the world is still good. People are full of the difficult realities. AND – yet they are still capable of good. This is a message for Sukkot and year round. Let’s do good, and let’s find joy in the imperfect good that we do.