Tuesday, October 18, 2005

yes, my sukkot post

Sukkot isn’t the easiest holiday for me.

I’ve known this for a long time, but this year, after my discussions about tradition, I’ve begun to understand my reasons a bit better.

First of all, I don’t enjoy it so much. I’ve found a quote from the Rambam to back me up on this:

“Both these festivals, I mean Sukkot and Pesach, inculcate both an opinion and a moral quality. In the case of Pesach, the opinion consists in the commemoration of the miracles of Egypt and in the perpetuation of their memory throughout the periods of time. In the case of Sukkot, the opinion consists in the perpetuation of the memory of the miracles of the desert throughout the periods of time. As for the moral quality, it consists in man's always remembering the days of stress in the days of prosperity, so that his gratitude to God should become great and so that he should achieve humility and submission. Accordingly unleavened bread and bitter herbs must be eaten on Pesach in commemoration of what happened to us. Similarly one must leave the house [during Sukkot] and dwell in tabernacles, as is done by the wretched inhabitants of deserts and wastelands, in order that the fact be commemorated that such was our state in ancient times: That I made the Children of Israel dwell in tabernacles, and so on". (Moreh Nevuchim III:43, Pines translation).

In other words, the Rambam basically says that sitting in the sukka is comparable to eating maror on Pesach – by remembering the bad times, we appreciate what we have now.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Many people enjoy sitting in the sukka. Why don’t I enjoy the holiday?

I think it goes back to my lack of tradition. Growing up in a non-Orthodox home, Pesach and Chanuka had great significance, even if we didn’t follow the halacha. We went to “Temple” on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. But despite going to Hebrew school, I have very little memory about Sukkot. We certainly didn’t celebrate it at home.

As I became religious in high school, I somehow managed to celebrate the holiday. I didn’t build a sukka, but for at least one year I purchased a lulav and etrog. But the time where I should have really learned what to do on Sukkot – during my 3 years in yeshiva in Israel – Sukkot fell during “bein hazmanim”. So I never got to watch my rabbis practice the customs and laws.

I guess on Sukkot, more than any other time during the year, I feel like an outsider, like a new baal teshuva. And while on other occasions I would simply study the laws to feel more competent, here I feel like there’s simply way too much to learn, and my natural difficulties in learning certain subject matters will prevent me from succeeding. In some ways I feel the same about tying tzitzit or the exact way to wear tefillin, but I’ve managed to at least feel comfortable in my routine, even if I’m not doing things perfectly.

So what do I do? I don’t want to take on every possible chumra, a) because that would be very difficult, and b) it doesn’t fit in with my general approach to halacha. So I get nervous. I try as much to rely on others to put up the sukka, to pick out the arba minim. And I feel jealous of those people who know how to bind and hold and shake their lulav because they simply do what their father did!

I’ve often said that I prefer Pesach to Sukkot because you need to prepare extensively for Pesach, but once it comes, you’re done. You don’t need to decide if this is or isn’t chametz. But sukkot you’re constantly (or at least I am constantly) wondering if the sukka is kosher or not, where in the world I’m going to find fresh aravot, etc. I think in my approach to dealing with lack of tradition, I’m more comfortable with “shev v’al taaseh” than I am with “kum aseh”.
I’m not sure what will improve the situation. I guess learning more about the halachot, but that is about as inviting to me as going back to the Cub Scouts and trying to learn how to tie knots. I mostly feel badly for my kids, since they’re much more likely to inherit their father’s neurosis about the holiday than any comforting traditions.

And if I’m already on a Sukkot rant, two other things:

  1. Since I usually work on Chol HaMoed, and my work has no sukka, I end up feeling like Sukkot is like Pesach. I have to constantly look for non-mezonot food!

  2. I don’t like wasps.