(RNS) — In the coming days, neighborhoods that are home to Orthodox Jewish families are experiencing their annual eruption of ramshackle huts on lawns, balconies and back decks.
The temporary edifices are where observant Jews will be taking their meals and enjoying life for the seven days of the holiday of Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Monday. The holiday’s name is derived from the Hebrew word “Sukkah,” or “covering,” and refers to those huts, whose roofs, according to the Jewish religious tradition, must be made of any material that once grew from the ground.
But there is another Hebrew word that shares the same root: “perception.” The implication is that these makeshift huts provide some change in perspective — which, in fact, they do.
There is something surprising, even jarring, about sitting in a small rudimentary hut, within sight of one’s more comfortable, more spacious home.
For starters, sukkah-sitters quickly realize how vulnerable they, and we all, are to the elements. Orthodox Jew are reminded of the power of nature each autumn since time immemorial, but in these climate-changed times, the lesson has become especially trenchant.
Jewish law permits — indeed, requires — the abandonment of the sukkah for surer shelter if it rains hard — even, the law says, if it rains hard enough to spoil one’s soup. But the lesson of human vulnerability remains. Even when we are safely back in our normal dining rooms, we remember that homes are themselves not impervious to disruptions of the increasingly frequent hurricanes, floods and fires that we’ve seen of late.
What goes along with this shift in perspective granted to sukkah-dwellers is how dependent we are on divine mercy.
More importantly, what the sukkah allows those within it to perceive, if they are honest enough to not push the thought away, is that our homes and possessions are not what matter in our lives — it is not, as the old, crass bumper sticker has it, that “the one who dies with the most toys wins.”
When Jews sit in their primitive houses for the week of Sukkot, they come to know that accumulation of stuff is folly. What we own does not define us. We will not take it with us.
Odd as it may seem, that thought is a joyous one.
Joy is the Sukkot holiday’s theme, reflected in the Jewish prayers for the festival. One might assume that deprivation of the comforts of home is anything but a road to joy. But true happiness, the Sukkot message and experience reveals, begins with realizing what doesn’t really make us happy.
Possessions provide a rush of sorts when first acquired, but like any addiction, that high soon enough wears off. The soul is not satiated, which is why possessions, like a drug, beget the want, even the need, for more of the same. In the Talmud’s words, “No one dies with half his desires in hand.”
We needn’t look further than entertainers, sports figures, bestselling authors, the rich with old money and lottery-winners. They may zip around in Lamborghinis, but their happiness quotient is no greater than that of those who take the bus. Their grand estates are no more of a home (and often less of one) than the simplest cozy cottage.
It is a cliché, but like most clichés, is a truth: True joy comes from our relationships not with things, but with other people — parents, spouses, children, friends, neighbors — and our relationships with our community and with God.
That may be the perspective-offering hut’s message to mankind. Ultimately, what we really have is not what we own, but what we are.
And so, thoughtful sukkah-dwellers, while gazing up at bamboo slats, leaves and branches, will be seeing far beyond.
(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. He blogs at rabbishafran.com. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)