It started raining on Monday night, so I had to scramble to get the Sukkah decorations down before they got ruined. (Incredibly, even though we’re in a drought in Southern California, the rain is “bad” because it might cause mudslides. It’s hard to know what to pray for…) I knew I wouldn’t have time to get the walls and the bamboo down, but figured that they’d eventually dry out and be fine. When I had completed removing all of the various plastic fruits and the child-crafted ushpizin posters, I noticed something quite striking. An undecorated Sukkah is a pretty stark sight. I guess I had never sat and stared at it in that condition before. Slowly though, the recognition swept over me that far from being a post-holiday letdown, this was actually a profoundly religious moment. Over the last day or so, I’ve become convinced that removing the Sukkah decorations, and taking a good long look at the stark and naked Sukkah, is the perfect exit ritual for Sukkot.
We’re all familiar with the idea that the Sukkah is intended to be a temporary dwelling – a metaphor for our lives and for our world. Nonetheless, as Sukkot is “the season of our joy”, we want to insure that its messages of “temporariness” and “fragility” don’t inadvertently induce depression within those who sit beneath its shade. Such a development would, as they might have said in the old country, fashtair the simcha. Big time. This is the genesis, I imagine, of the mandate to decorate the Sukkah – to transform our potentially dreary metaphor into a spectacular display of holiday cheer. How else to explain the otherwise frivolous-seeming interest that Jewish Law takes in the decorations, and in their halachik status?
But the day after Sukkot, when we are no longer in legally-mandated happiness, is a good opportunity to see the metaphor that is the Sukkah, in all its unspectacular glory. Let’s face it. The world is a fragile place, one that despite its size and grandeur carries the hint of temporariness about it – especially in light of modern scientific knowledge, and modern human capacities to wreak enormous destruction. The end of Sukkot doesn’t merely mark the close of the holiday period. It marks the beginning of the post-holiday period – the period of many, many months during which we encounter the world not through the holy rosy lenses of one of our Festivals, but with a clear vision as to the fragile state of all things. This is period during which we are religiously enjoined to make a difference for the good in a sector of this fragile world about which we feel passionate. To try to shore it up a little. What then could be a better transition ritual than to strip the Sukkah down to its unadorned true fragile self, and to absorb this picture for a few minutes? To see things as they really are. And then after that, to take a deep breath, and to say to God, “Here I am. Reporting for duty in this crazy, fragile, glorious sukkah that You call Earth.”