Sukkah shelters

We’ve just passed the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when many Jews construct a sukkah — “hut” or “booth” — reminiscent of the shelters in which the ancient Hebrews dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert following their flight from Egypt.

Some Jews will spend the entire week-long Sukkot observance living inside the sukkah, while others will only take meals or entertain guests within the hut’s walls.

I love the fact that it gets people outside.

In the twenty-first century, particularly in developed countries, we spend way too much time indoors. The elements beyond the four walls in which we live and work too often become something to be endured on the way to and from the car. We might garden, go hiking or barbecue outdoors on weekends, but how much time do we really spend outside on a daily basis?

I once asked a rabbi why anyone would want to celebrate 40 years of wandering in the desert. That didn’t sound like a good time to me. His response was along the lines of commemorating the exodus from Egypt and re-experiencing the journey that is often required between enslavement and real freedom and self-determination.

I’ve come to look at the holiday more as an opportunity to reconnect with ancient roots — Jewish or otherwise — hearkening back to a time when people truly lived with and on the land, whether in agricultural communities or as nomadic bands seeking a “promised land.”

There are special requirements to be met in constructing the sukkah, dictating shape, dimensions, materials and so forth, but I’ve always been fascinated by the roof, which must be made of organic material that is not attached to the ground — so no living tree branches — and which must be open enough that the stars are visible at night from inside the sukkah.

This means that even while taking refuge within the sukkah, we’re never truly cut off from the skies above. Many still refer to the night sky as “the Heavens” and will look upward when praying or rejoicing. It’s natural to gaze through the small window of our atmosphere to the vast universe beyond, and have that as our means of connecting with forces larger than ourselves. Plus, I imagine it’s rather romantic and even a bit mystical to muse and slumber in the sukkah, with starlight above filtered through palm fronds.

Admittedly, I’ve not yet built my own sukkah. I doubt my HOA would appreciate a plywood hut sitting on the lawn for seven days. I’m reminded of A.J. Jacobs, who in his book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” had difficulty finding a location where he’d be allowed to construct his sukkah, and so instead set it up in the living room of his New York City apartment. So instead of stars, I imagine he got a great view of ceiling plaster.

But the sukkah’s permeable roof also means exposure to the elements, even though limited. Again, this would be a hard sell here in Oregon, where the weather turns chilly and wet around this time of year. But isn’t that the point? Exposure to the elements is a good reminder that human beings are a part of a larger natural world over which we have no real control.

Sukkot — as well as extended camping trips and other outdoor activities — brings us face to face with the fact that living at odds with the environment simply doesn’t work. We can’t stop the rain. We can’t stop the cold, or the heat. Thinking and living otherwise puts us in real danger. Survival is dependent upon living in harmony with the natural world — understanding and respecting our environment, rather than behaving as though we are its master.

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