By Marsha Smagley
I have trouble leaving the Jewish holidays. It is especially hard for me to leave the sukkah; this year was no exception. This past Sukkos, as Hoshana Rabbah was approaching, I felt a sadness that soon I would have to leave the sukkah, aware that the darkness of winter was near with many days remaining before the lights of Chanukah would shine.
Not having been raised with Torah, I was most familiar with the holidays of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. I had no idea that as Jews we were given so many beautiful holidays, each bringing its own unique opportunity for growth and closeness to G-d. But it is in the sukkah, when we are asked to leave the comfort and physical security of our permanent home for the impermanent dwelling of the sukkah, that I have experienced the true security of dwelling with G-d.
WE LIVE in a predominantly secular Jewish community and are one of the few families to have a sukkah on our street. Each year a man named Tzachi comes from Israel to Chicago, where I live, and puts up our sukkah. I like to think of him as Tzachi the Sukkah Man. My family and I look forward to his call each year just before Yom Kippur, announcing he has arrived from Israel and is ready to take our sukkah parts out of storage and bring it back to life.
Tzachi has many sukkahs in many neighborhoods to put up. He works as a construction engineer in Israel, but I believe his seasonal job of putting up sukkahs is his “holiest” of constructions. I recall a touching memory of Tzachi davening minchah just before putting up our sukkah. He stood on our front lawn facing east reciting the prayers by heart, tzitzis flowing as he bowed in supplication to Hashem. Seeing a person praying on the front lawn is an unusual sight on our street. I felt that our sukkah was being assembled with blessing.
I do not like when Tzachi calls after Simchas Torah to arrange a time to put away our sukkah for the year. I know that he has to go home to Israel and that the sukkah at that point is but an empty shell; still, I do not like to see it go.
This year, when Tzachi came to take it apart, something unusual happened.Tzachi dismantled the sukkah but could not put its parts away because the sechach and sukkah fabric walls were soaked. Its many parts needed to be spread out in our backyard to dry.
As I peered out the window into our yard, I no longer saw the familiar sight of our beautiful sukkah. Instead I saw its remnants, some covered in fallen autumn leaves, draped on many chairs in our backyard to dry. It was a strange and disconcerting sight.
I could not help but see Hashem’s hand in this experience. Although it is hard to know all His messages, I wondered if G-d was delaying the return of our sukkah to help me to reflect on what I had learned from these preceding awesome days, to help me to reassemble, piece by piece, each last precious memory of dwelling in His sukkah.
OUR FIRST sukkah was made of wood, built by my husband and two yeshivah boys. We could barely squeeze our family into it, but I loved it. The following year, my husband bought a shul-sized sukkah from The Sukkah Depot. Each year I try to fill our huge sukkah with many guests. I love to invite my children’s friends and families, especially those who would not otherwise have an opportunity to be in a sukkah or wave the four species.
As I usher guests into our sukkah, I think of Sarah Imeinu when she and Avraham Avinu welcomed guests in their tent. I, of course, cannot compare myself to Sarah, but I like to think of her anyway. It gives me chizuk, inspiration. In addition to our invited guests, my daughter and I knock on many of our neighbors’ doors, inviting them to eat in our sukkah and, if they wish, to wave the four species.
THIS PAST Sukkos began with beautiful warm autumn weather. Then it snowed. This was a record even for Chicago; it had never snowed in October before. I remember getting up and looking out our upstairs window as I did each morning during the holiday to gaze at the sukkah below, only to see its roof blanketed in snow. I was shocked. I never saw snow on a sukkah before. I felt like Tzachi the Sukkah Man had been replaced with Frosty the Snowman.
My nine-year-old daughter’s friend was coming over along with her mother, who was expecting, and two younger siblings to eat lunch in our sukkah on that snowy day. I ran out to the yard and slowly unzipped the sukkah door to check the weather conditions inside. I hoped that the snow had just stayed on the roof and that if we dressed warmly we could still have lunch in the sukkah. I hoped the expectant mother would not mind.
The snow had melted and dripped down through the sechach, creating fresh puddles of water on the tables and chairs. As I assessed the feasibility of eating in the sukkah and with optimism began to wipe the water from the tables and chairs, more water dripped down on my head. Later in the afternoon we did bravely manage to recite a berachah in the sukkah over dessert. But we immediately went inside afterward for cover.
Although it did not snow again the rest of the week, it was wet and cold. I began to feel robbed of my precious time in the sukkah. As Shemini Atzeres approached, which this year fell on Shabbos, I hoped that it would warm up and stay dry enough to enjoy this very last day in our sukkah. It was difficult for me to say farewell to the sukkah under any circumstance — it was especially hard after having lost those last few days.
ON THAT Shabbos morning of Shemini Atzeres, wrapped in warm clothing, I was the first one to enter our sukkah. It was cold, but the rain had stopped and the sun shown brilliantly in the morning sky, warming the inside of our sukkah. Although I sat alone in the sukkah, I knew I was not alone. I felt His Presence; I felt the true security which comes from being enveloped in the loving embrace of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
I gazed in awe at the inner beauty of this most precious of dwellings. There were other sukkahs that were far more elaborately decorated, but to me our sukkah reflected the beauty which comes from a family desiring to make a warm and loving home for Hashem to dwell.
Our sukkah was illuminated with beautiful white shimmering lights from above; my family’s favorite lights were the grape light ornaments, with each cluster of red and green grapes taking turns lighting up. There were many pictures hanging on each wall. My nine-year-old daughter had drawn them over the past few years. There was a picture of the Kosel and another of a boy waving the four species in front of the holy ark in shul. My favorite picture was of a family eating in the sukkah, but instead of sitting on chairs they were happily flying up to the ceiling.
On our sukkah’s eastern wall hung a poster of a sea of men davening at the Kosel while waving the four species. The blessings for ushering in the ushpizin, the honored guests, too, hung on this wall. My fifteen-year-old son recited this prayer for us each night. Plastic cutouts of each of the seven species of Eretz Yisrael were hung throughout the sukkah, along with the Star of David hanging down from the ceiling in its center, held by a sparkling blue pipe cleaner.
My daughter has described our sukkah as lively and colorful. She said it was a holy place which gave her the chills and a good feeling inside. I had to agree.
Although it was a bit cold, I asked my family to please eat this last meal in our sukkah, and with spirit and determination we spent a good part of Shabbos afternoon dwelling in the sukkah. My parents, too, joined us. I warmly recall the image of my fifteen-year-old son holding on to my mother, who needed to use a walker, to escort her through our yard into the sukkah. My mother had commented that the food was good, and that although it was a bit cold outside, it was cozy inside and she enjoyed the warmth of everyone there. Since I was the first Torah-observant person my mother really knew, I especially appreciated her efforts to sit with us in a cold sukkah.
As the time came to say farewell to the sukkah, I thanked Hashem for giving us this last beautiful day to dwell in it. I still was not ready to leave. After my family said their goodbyes and went inside, I remained alone in the sukkah, this last time, and cried out to HaKadosh Baruch Hu from the depths of my heart that I did not want to leave His home; I did not want to leave Him. Tears filled my eyes, the tears of a soul that wanted to keep dwelling in the loving embrace of the Shechinah forever.
IT IS NOW more than two weeks after Sukkos ended, and the rain has finally slowed down. My husband and son were able to put the sukkah parts back in their boxes — that is, all the parts except the bamboo sechach which still needed more drying time. When my husband and I returned from a chasunah the other night, and as I was about to go inside through the back door, I saw the sechach still leaning on chairs in our yard. I checked to see if it was finally dry and it was.
I suddenly heard a loud crackling of thunder in the dark night sky, and with the threat of more rain, I could not bear that the sechach would have to be left out even more days to dry. At that moment, I realized that what I truly could not bear was to see any of Hashem’s holy abode continuing to be left in fragments in our yard; it was time to put the sukkah away. It was time to say goodbye.
Still dressed in my wedding clothes, I tried to lift the bundle of sechach, but it was too heavy. Determined that it would not get rained on again, I prayed to Hashem to give me the strength to put this last remnant of our sukkah away. He answered my prayers. I held tightly on to the sechach to avoid dropping it and managed to get it into the garage.
As I held on to the sechach, I was comforted by the thought that although the last remnant of our sukkah was finally gone, it did not mean that Hashem was leaving me. At that moment, I was given the true clarity that my challenge was to bring the lesson of the sukkah “inside” — into my home and into my life. I needed to strive to bring down Hashem’s light into every aspect of my life and to build a permanent place within my home and within my soul for Him to dwell.
I recalled a favorite verse in Tehillim which I recite each day: “One thing I request of Hashem that shall I seek: that I may dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of Hashem, and to meditate in His Sanctuary. For He will hide me in His sukkah on the day of distress, and he will conceal in the shelter of His tent; upon a rock He will lift me” (Tehillim 27:4–5).
I thank HaKadosh Baruch Hu for giving us a chance to create new beginnings, to bring inside all that we have learned from dwelling in His sukkah. I pray that Hashem will continue to envelop me in His sukkah, to take my hand and lead me through the darkness of winter and this long and bitter galus, until the lights of Chanukah shine forth.
This article originally appeared in Horizon’s magazine and is dedicated for a refuah shleimah of Shayna bas Madelyn.