The Soulful Architecture of the Sukkah
“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization.”— Frank Lloyd Wright
I don’t know if Frank Lloyd Wright ever sat for a meal in a sukkah. If I could, I’d invite him along with the ushpizin*, just to see what he’d say about the architecture of the sukkah structure and how it reflects on the soul of Jewish civilization.
Wright would immediately notice that a sukkah is very modest, especially compared to the phenomenon of suburban McMansions and particularly compared to the real mansions on the Neck in Marblehead or out over the “cliff walk” in Newport, RI! The sukkah is no skyscraper either, usually reaching just over our heads. (The absolute maximum is about 30 feet high.) According to Israel Meyer Kagan (the “Hefetz Haim”, a great nineteenth and early 20th century halachic scholar) any sukkah built too high would require strong walls to support it. The makeshift walls of the low-lying sukkah, however, remind us that the sukkah is meant to be an impermanent structure. It should withstand a blustery wind, but not a major storm.
The message conveyed by the impermanence of the sukkah is essential for us today. Although we know everything in our lives is fragile and insecure, we nevertheless do everything we can to maintain the illusion that the status quo will continue on indefinitely more or less “as is”. Sitting in a sukkah reminds us of our actual vulnerability, that we don’t rule our own personal worlds entirely. Although it is in a mostly harmless way – thankfully – we are subject in the sukkah to bad weather, bugs and other creatures, and the dangers of unlocked doors, noise, criminals and to the sense of insecurity that induces vague fear from threats unknown.
But because we sit there in the sukkah and enjoy ourselves anyway, we also realize that we have to – and can – trust in forces other than ourselves: There is comfort in peeping at the stars or the blue sky through the schach, the sukkah’s foliage roof, in visits from kind strangers, in feeling literally ‘at home’ in our ever-changing surroundings.
Franz Rosenzweig, Judaism’s modern philosophical sage, says that the fragility of the sukkah “reminds the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, no matter how temptingly it beckons to rest and un-imperiled living, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries.”
A chasidic tale I often tell echoes both these thoughts: A wealthy burgher once hired a poor teacher as a resident tutor for a ‘zman’, that is, under a contract for a fixed amount of time. It happened that during this period the prosperous owner built himself a magnificent mansion. During the dedication celebration for the new house, the chanukat bayit, the humble teacher was as joyous as any member of the household. The owner asked him, “Why are you so full of joy?! After all, you are here only for a ‘zman’, a fixed time.” The teacher replied, “And you? Do you think you are here forever? You too are only here for a ‘zman’!
The sukkah, like the humble teacher, reminds us that our homes are temporary castles. Rather than delude ourselves or ignore our state of permanent insecurity, we can, again like the teacher, learn to live in this moment’s joy. The Sukkot festival, interestingly, is also known as Zman Simchateinu, the “The Time of Our Joy.” Impermanence is a condition without cure, but joy transcends the generations.
The sukkah is transgenerational ecologically as well, a true example of sustainable architecture. It recalls simpler days when we Jews wandered the deserts on the way to the Promised Land, and when, as an agricultural society, we dwelled in sukkot during the autumn harvest season in Eretz Yisrael. At its best, our sukkah today should also use local materials. Schach cannot be a synthetic material, it must have grown from the earth: it’s biodegradable. The sukkah is without foundations or permanent walls: this year’s sukkah will be removed from the patch of earth on which it sat, leaving no trace, and next year’s sukkah need not be coerced by its precedent, by its presumption that the past can or must dictate our present and future.
The sukkah is simple. Nearly anyone can get the materials and put it together. When private outdoor space is unavailable, the communal sukkah in the synagogue courtyard can be decorated with the simple arts and crafts of children or with fruit and leaves. I know a family whose decorations include a patchwork quilt the size of one of the sukkah’s walls. Each year a patch is added, on which the names of visitors to their sukkah that year are embroidered.
I’m confident that Frank Lloyd Wright would have sensed the soul of Jewish civilization during his sojourn in the sukkah.
Come join us as we decorate the Temple Sinai sukkah this Sunday morning at 9:00am. Come experience a festive holiday meal in the sukka following services at 6:00pm on Sunday evening! Required to RSVP.
*Ushpizin, from the Aramaic word for “guests”, are the seven spiritual visitors that we traditionally welcome into the sukkah throughout the holiday: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Nowadays, many people also welcome Sarah, Rachel, Rivka, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, Abigail, and/or other heroes or esteemed familial ancestors.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Michael Schwartz