I was standing on a ladder in my backyard, putting the finishing touches on my sukkah, when I was startled by an unexpected voice from above. Looking up, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was not a divine revelation. It was a shout out from one of the workers who was replacing the shingles on a nearby house.
“Nice roof you got there, buddy,” he said to me, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He was referring to the bamboo poles resting unsteadily on top of the walls of my wooden hut.
This was neither the time nor the place for explaining the festival of Sukkot, especially to a person who was balancing precariously on a rooftop. However, his comment helped reinforce one of the essential elements of the holiday: the rickety roof of the sukkah is meant, on one level, to remind us of the fragility of life. No matter how sturdily we build our houses and other structures, or how high-tech our security systems may be, tragedies can still happen. They may be natural or man-made. Examples abound, from the Titanic, to the World Trade Center.
This may seem like a depressing theme for a holiday that the Torah describes as “the time for our rejoicing.” However, there’s another component to the festival. The person of faith believes that the Almighty is ultimately in charge of our safety. Everything that happens, whether good or bad, comes from God and happens for a reason. The delicate sukkah roof is a reminder that our efforts are only part of the picture. The Jews who left Egypt only survived their 40-year trek through the desert as a result of the Almighty watching over them while they lived in flimsy huts.
Orthodox Jews have been shaken by a number of tragic incidents in their community over the past year that have resulted in a number of people losing their lives at a relatively young age, for a variety of reasons. Of course, such tragedies occur in all segments of society, but a person is naturally touched more by calamities in his or her immediate community.
Some people have reacted to these heartbreaking deaths in practical ways. For example, there is an ongoing conversation within the community about the importance of advocating for better medical care for one’s loved ones. There have also been responses to these catastrophes on a spiritual level. Numerous rabbis have delivered sermons about how we can use misfortune as a catalyst for improving our relationship with God. Likewise, a public gathering was held recently for the purpose of saying prayers and hearing inspirational messages, with self-introspection being the main theme.
There is also the belief that when we care about others, it motivates God to want to help us. In this regard, mention must be made of a wonderful project that was initiated in response to the senseless deaths of a young, engaged couple who were killed about half a year ago by a driver who was high on drugs. The families of the two victims have channelled their indescribable pain into a worldwide effort to encourage people to help older singles find their soul mates. They want others to enjoy the simcha that their lost children will never have. Extra emphasis is being put on this project during the High Holidays.
When building a sukkah this year, don’t worry about what others – even the professional roofers – think is normal. It should be designed in such a way that anyone sitting inside can look up through a roof that allows the rain, the sun and, most of all, the Almighty’s protection, to get through it.