The paradox of life

Judaism’s realistic joy

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
“For a seven-day period you shall live in booths.Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” -Vayikra 23: 42-43.
Painting by Yoram Raanan;;
When contemplating the festival of Succot, we are confronted with a remarkable paradox.
As is well known, the succa symbolizes our life span in the world. For what is a succa? It is a frail structure in which we need to dwell for seven days. Many commentators remind us that these seven days represent man’s average life span, which is about 70 years. This was well stated by King David when he wrote: “The span of his years are 70 and with strength 80 years” (Psalms 90:10). Under favorable circumstances, we may prolong our stay in this world into our eighth “day,” which is symbolized by Shmini Atzeret (a separate festival immediately following the seven days of Succot).
How frail our life is – not only short but also unreliable.
As long as we live under favorable and healthy circumstances, life is a pleasant experience and, just like the succa, it seems to protect us and we feel safe.
But once life begins to unravel serious problems, or seems to turn against us, we realize how little protection it really can offer, and how unstable our existence truthfully is. Like the succa, life is far less secure than we had imagined.
Perplexing, however, is the fact that the festival of Succot is considered to be the highlight of joy and happiness. Speaking specifically of Succot, the Torah states: “…and you shall be happy on your festival” (Deuteronomy 16:14). This means that we should experience the most exalted form of happiness at a time when we have to dwell in a structure that is far from being secure! In fact, Jewish law makes it abundantly clear that the succa must be built in such a way that it is not able to stand up against a strong wind; that its roof must leak when it starts to rain, and that it must contain more shadow than sunlight.
These conditions should, in theory, make us feel distressed since the succa seems to represent the vulnerability of man. So why command us to be joyful, precisely at a time when one is confronted with all that can go wrong in life? Here, another question comes to mind. Since the succa teaches us about life’s handicaps, we would expect that Jewish law would also require its interior to reflect a similar message. As such, the succa should be empty of all comfort. It should contain just some broken chairs, an old table and some meager cutlery with which to eat one’s dry bread.
However, Jewish law holds a great surprise. It stipulates that the succa’s interior should reflect a most optimistic lifestyle. Its frail walls should be decorated with beautiful art, paintings and other decorations.
The leaking roof, made from leaves or reeds, should be made to look attractive by hanging colorful fruits from it. One is required to bring one’s best furniture into the succa, if possible to place a carpet on the ground, and have nice curtains hanging from its windows.
One should eat from the most beautiful plates and use one’s best cutlery. Meals should be more elaborate than usual, and should include delicacies. Singing should accompany those meals.
All this seems to reflect a feeling that this world is a most pleasant place made for our enjoyment and recreation.
So why sit in a weather-beaten hut? The message could not be clearer. However much the outside walls and the leaking of the roof reveal man’s vulnerability and uncertainty, inside these walls one needs to make one’s life as attractive as possible and enjoy its great benefits and blessings.
This should not be lost on us. Instead of becoming depressed and losing faith in our lives when major tragedies take place, together with the ongoing calls for the destruction of Israel, we should continue to approach life with the optimistic note that is conveyed to us by the beautiful interior of the succa.
True, the growing phenomenon of anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel, the many earthquakes, floods, and the awful attacks on our fellowmen (even in the heart of those countries that believed they could offer their citizens a great amount of security) prove how vulnerable modern man really is and how shaken the outer walls of his “succa” are. But this should not hold us back from enjoying life as much as possible. To be happy when all is well is of no great significance. But to be fully aware of the dangers that surround us, while simultaneously continuing our lives with “song and harp,” is what makes humans great and proud.
We would do well to discourage people from speculating about “the end of days” or reading kabbalistic and other sources informing us that the messianic days are very close and that the wars preceding the coming of the Messiah are imminent.
Such speculations, however tempting, could cause a great backlash and inflict great damage. Instead, we should stay with our feet firmly planted on the ground and make sure we live up to our moral and religious obligations.
The ongoing attacks on mankind by terrorist organizations should encourage people to unite and to display more sensitivity to each other’s needs. It should encourage Jew and gentile to build strong family ties and create, just as in the case of the succa, strong and pleasant homes. It should inspire people to go to synagogue and church and create cohesive communities, because these are some of the most important “decorations” in our lifelong succa.
Indeed, the walls of our worldly succa may be shaking, but let us not forget that we have an obligation to decorate its interior. \
Moadim lesimha!
The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books and an international lecturer. This article originally appeared on the writer’s website, September 22, 2010;