Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot: On taking time to relax, treasure simplicity

Shabbat Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot

The symbols of Sukkot are quite unimpressive: a collection of branches, an overgrown lemon, and a frail, three-sided booth covered with fruits, flowers, twigs and leaves.

The modest lulav, etrog and the simple sukkah seem out of place in this technologically sophisticated age.

In addition, there are no modern conveniences in the sukkah — no microwave, dishwasher, computer, CD player or VCR. There is no commotion or traffic or ringing telephone. There are no stacks of mail, fax machines, frequent-flier accounts, or any of the gadgets and gizmos we often spend so much time figuring out how to operate or repair.

However, there is something quite alluring about the frail sukkah and the unspoiled lulav and etrog in our technologically advanced agricultural world of disease-resistant, hybrid, high-yield, genetically engineered, recombinant DNA fruits and vegetables. These plain symbols, unaltered by human hands, offer rich gifts.

Jewish law specifies that everything used to construct and decorate the sukkah must be natural. No man-made products, not even nails, are to be used. Thus, it affords us an opportunity to rejoice in the simpler things of life. Sukkot enables Jews to forsake, even for just a moment, fast cars and faster lives; it is a message that ought to be all the more appreciated in this era of over-programmed and over-burdened lives.

Those who do not prize the symbols of Sukkot are those who have no time to step into a sukkah to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in booths, do not cherish the rich abundance of earth's bounty or do not offer thanksgiving and prayer to God for the rich gifts we enjoy. They simply are just too busy to recognize that Sukkot provides the necessary odometer warning people that they are traveling too fast.

The symbols of Sukkot offer a spiritual oasis in the midst of our fast-paced world, a reminder that slow is valuable, that a leisurely eaten meal without the blare of television or the interruption of a telephone can be preferable to a steady diet of hastily eaten junk-food meals and indigestion. There, the rustling of leaves, the blowing wind, conversation of family and friends, the resonance of prayer and song, and shared moments are the only sounds.

Time in the sukkah is time apart, time to sit, linger, relax and unwind. There is no hurry, nowhere to go, no appointment to keep. How refreshing but also how sobering it is, because like the frail booth, everything in life is fragile and can be swept away, unexpectedly. Thus, while the sukkah does not offer protection from the ravages of nature or time, it does provide a reminder of how fleeting existence can be.

A sukkah is constructed with only three walls because while no one ever has a perfect life, something is always missing. The three-walled sukkah looks out toward family, neighbors and friends who serve as a source of companionship, comfort and encouragement during moments of despair. Amid family, friends, health, success and happiness, no one is exempt from sorrow, failure, disappointment and longing, which lurk in the background.

Thus, the sukkah, a reminder of the importance of relationships, also provides protection from the hubris that leads to the declaration: "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me" (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Rabbi Isaac Luria, 16th-century mystic, established the curious custom of inviting a different biblical personality into the sukkah on each night of Sukkot. The observance of Yizkor — the remembrance of our departed loved ones — extends this custom by also encouraging invitations to cherished family members to enter this humble shelter to be strengthened and fortified by their love.

We say, "Come with us into the sukkah, Father, Grandpa, Grandma. Stay for a brief moment, abide, tarry, linger. Don't go just yet. Let me savor the memory of your love. Let me feel your warmth as I hold on tight, even for just one fleeting moment."

The unspoiled symbols of Sukkot enable a Jew to sit back for just a few moments without pressures and interruptions, to slow down and sit with loved ones here and those long gone. It affords a Jew the opportunity to say, "I remember when," which strengthens and empowers us to think of what we might yet become.