The miracle in our backyard

The roof may leak, the walls may shake, but we, the Jewish People, keep right on rolling along.

Lady blows a shofar flash 90 521 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Lady blows a shofar flash 90 521
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
The sound of Yom Kippur's final, dramatic Tekiah Gedola has barely faded away, and suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of yet another holiday period. In this seemingly-endless marathon of Eat, Pray, Sleep that we call the High Holidays - or simply, "the Chagim" - we cover all the highs and lows of the human experience. This includes practically moving into the synagogue - some may actually find the place a welcome refuge from the multitudes of family and friends who continually swarm around our homes -  to spending long hours on the few off-festive days trying (vainly) to work off some of the massive calories we have been ingesting.
Thankfully, God and the Rabbis threw in two fast days to help provide some balance; but the challa, honey, sweet wine and desserts invariably win out, and they do more than keep just our spirits buoyant.
Just when you thought the Days of Awe were winding down and it was safe to come home, to relax and settle back into the normal routine - if "normal" is a term that can be used at all in Israel - we are told to pack up the dishes and head to the backyard (ours or someone else's). Sukkot - along with Chanuka, Judaism's longest holiday - is a sensual delight. The touch of the palm branch we hold, the fragrance of the Etrog, the feel of fresh air, the taste of falling leaves in our Sukkah-soup. It's all there.
But the Rabbis question why it is that Sukkot immediately follows the Day of Atonement. After all, if the purpose of the Festival is primarily to recall the journey of the Children of Israel through the desert in makeshift huts - in classic "You Are There" style - then why hold the Chag so close to Yom Kippur? At virtually ANY point during the year, we could have re-lived this nomadic experience with essentially the same effect.
So some want to suggest that Sukkot is a counter-balance to the Ten Days of Repentance. After concluding our prayers and fasting, secure in our belief that we have indeed persuaded the Creator to grant us another lease on life, we might have a tendency to become a bit arrogant, sure that we will now be safe and sound within our fine surroundings. And so, to inject a healthy dose of humility into our ego-systems, we move out of the house - at least somewhat - into modest surroundings that literally "ground" us. After all, they reason, we may have emerged triumphantly from the High Holidays, but we are still the same fragile and vulnerable creatures that we were before.
I have another, very different thought.
I maintain that the Sukkah is not so much a symbol of modesty as it is of our miraculous spirit of survival. You see, for much of our history we have actually employed the "Sukkah strategy," moving rapidly from one community to another at a moment's notice, folding up our tents as well as our lives in order to escape this hostile dictator or that anti-Semitic populace. The fact that we have been able to re-establish our communities and re-create ourselves, against all odds, is nothing short of miraculous.
Indeed, the famous Chassidic analysis wonders, "Why do we only ask Four Questions on Pesach, at the Seder, and not on Sukkot?" The answer, only partly tongue-in-cheek, is that Jews living in less than magnificent mansions raises few eyebrows, while those same Jews proclaiming their freedom while sitting at elaborate holiday tables, adorned with the finest crystal and silver, is certainly a cause for wonderment and explanation!
The fact is, as the Talmud so rightly points out, the person who experiences a miracle rarely recognizes his good fortune. We, the Jewish People, are no less than a living miracle day in and day out, but we rarely are aware of it. We don't stop to think how amazing, how irrational it is that we can survive - better, flourish - in the toughest neighborhood on Earth. Surrounded by chaos on every side, we are a sea of calm. Governments are toppling all around us, and we remain stable, virtually oblivious to the madness and mayhem just over the nearby border. They boycott, we just get better.
This is a miracle, folks, and it's about time we acknowledged it. Just because it happens in clockwork fashion is no reason to think less of it. In fact, it makes it all the more impressive.
There is a famous story in the Talmud's tractate of Taanit: Rav Mari, a Babylonian sage, was once standing on the banks of the river Papa & saw angels who were disguised as sailors. They loaded sand aboard their ship, &, wonder of wonders, the sand turned into fine flour! The people, who were suffering from a terrible drought that year, flocked to the port to buy it. But Rav Mari yelled out to them, "Don't buy it! It came about through a miracle!" The next day, boatloads of wheat arrived from Perezina, a town near Baghdad.
Why did Rav Mari not want the people to eat the miracle flour? Did he think utilizing a miracle would deplete their stored-up credit of merit & good fortune? Rabbi Morey Schwartz, in his excellent book on the complex interaction between Man and God, "Where Is My Miracle?", suggests that the sage understood that there is a BETTER miracle than sand-into-flour; it is wheat into flour! That's right; the wonders of nature that surround us, that occur 24/7 right under our noses in our backyards, in our bodies, in the skies above are the REAL miracles of life, all too often unappreciated. Strangely enough, it is a lesser person that needs an outright, nature-challenging miracle to occur, & a greater person who is able to recognize that life - everyday life - is filled to the brim with miracles of every shape & form.
And this, I suggest to you, is the reason why Sukkot follows close on the heels of Yom Kippur. It is to demonstrate to us just how successful our recent prayers have been: Not only has God graciously granted us our souls for yet another year, He has vouchsafed us more miraculous living inside the little Sukkah that we call Israel. The roof may leak, the walls may shake, but we, the Jewish People, keep right on rolling along.