In The Shelter of the Sukkah

Rabbi Spike during Sukkah

Rabbi Spike during Sukkah

The day was brutally hot. Hot! The thick air seemed to beg for a breeze, the sidewalk shimmered with the heat, and the sun pounded relentlessly. But, we had friends over and the children (toddlers, really) wanted to play outside. So, I unrolled the garden-hose and filled the plastic kiddy-pool with cool water up to their knees. And then, the kids jumped in and began to splash and laugh as if the kiddy-pool was their dream-come-true; and at that moment in time, in the context of the day’s insistent heat, it was.

Good simple fun; not the kind that costs a lot of money or that comes with a dozen batteries, but the kind that reflects the purity of innocence and the joy of being alive. All three kids stepped into the pool wearing both diapers and shirts, but within seconds, all three somehow had managed to shuck their clothing and were delighting in “swimming” in their birthday suits. With some effort, similar to herding cats, we barely managed to get them covered with sunscreen before they lost themselves in the whimsical world of play. Then, somehow, it was decided that I was going to stay outside and be “in charge”, while the other adults retreated indoors to escape the heat and to talk quietly.

I figured that after a few minutes the kids would get too hot and want to go indoors, but I was wrong. Even as I melted, they continued to jump and splash in the kiddy-pool without a hint of slowing down. I began to get a bit worried. After all, even with sunscreen, that much sun must be doing something to their skin. My thoughts kept running, “What if we missed a spot? I’m sure that we must have missed a spot. Maybe I should take them out. Or, maybe I should make them put on their wet clothes for protection. But, they are having so much fun and I would hate to ruin it.”

I wanted them to have this chance to play like only children can, but I was getting really concerned about sunburn. As I debated what to do, I walked to the edge of the pool and put my body between the kids and the sun, so that my shadow, elongated by the waning hour, sheltered them while they played. I knew that this solution was temporary, but for the moment, it was good enough. They were safe. And, as I stood there, feeling that harsh heat on my back, I thought to myself, “If only it would be this easy for everything when it comes to my children. If only I could shelter them with my protective shadow, my haven of love, from everything that might harm them.”

This idea of a loving parent sheltering his or her children from the harmful elements, those forces beyond our control, is a central theological theme within Judaism. In our daily Hashkiveinu prayer, we ask God to “cover us with the shelter of Your peace” (Sukkat sh’lomeha) and to “shield us beneath the shadow of Your wings against enemies, illness, war, famine, and sorrow.” Both of these images reflect metaphors of relationship and impermanence. By nature, shadows ebb and flow with time; thus, what would certainly provide shade in the early morning will likely not at high noon.
Likewise, the image of seeking a haven under a living wing can not last forever, for eventually that wing will have to fly or we, ourselves, will have to move.

So, with Hashkiveinu, we ask that God protect us from the worst of the storm’s rage and the day’s heat, with the understanding that it cannot (and should not) be a constant and permanent protection that would last forever. We only ask that God be with us, and help us, when we are most vulnerable and when threats are the most dangerous.

No place is this idea more central than in our holiday of Sukkot, which literally means temporary shelters”. For a week, we are required to eat our meals in a sukkah (singular of Sukkot), and our sages of the Talmud (b. Succah 4b) were very specific that each sukkah was supposed to be complete enough to provide shelter, yet open enough to experience the elements. This is why the sukkah can only have three walls, and the branches that make up the roof must offer more shade than sun in the daytime, yet allow the stars to be seen at night.

Like our itinerant biblical ancestors whose nomadic lifestyle demanded collapsible shelters, and in the spirit of our agricultural past when temporary structures were erected during the harvest to escape the day’s heat and the night’s rain, we experience the sukkah as a dichotomy and a symbol for life. We are sheltered, but not fully. We are exposed, but not really. We are protected from the worst of the elements, while at the same time, we are still very much aware, and affected, by them. Yet some shelter, especially when we most need it, is sometimes the most that we can hope for; for without it, we are as vulnerable as a naked toddler under the hot Los Angeles sun. And so, we invoke the traditional Sukkot greeting for guests under the sukkah, “Be seated, be seated, exalted guests, sit in the shade of the Holy One, blessed be God.”

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