Sukkot: Thoughts On A Jewish Way To Embrace (And Escape!) Nature
It’s Sukkot, a time when observant Jews hang out in temporary huts to eat and maybe even sleep. Frankly, I don’t observe the holiday in any formal way — building mini-huts is not within my skill set, no matter how mini. But I’m thrilled to eat and hang out in someone else’s sukkah as long as the weather is right. There’s a calm, easy pleasure in savoring stuffed cabbage or grape leaves in a cool little dwelling, remembering that stuffed vegetables can represent a bountiful harvest. It sparks my imagination just a bit, reminds me that farming still exists, and that my food comes from real, solid places where people work the land. But these huts are not insulated from the cold or the rain, so weather can drive the experience and determine whether it’s wonderful or some degree of uncomfortable.
When the weather is really wrong for it — rainy enough that your food will be spoiled, or unpleasant in some other way that would cause discomfort — I’m told that there is no obligation to eat a meal or sleep in the sukkah. This made me smile and feel an easy kinship with the rabbis who made this decision. How do we define “discomfort”? That’s up to each person. If you’re the type to shiver and feel unhappy in 60-degree weather, you might be able to avoid the unpleasantness. No doubt there are differences of opinion on exactly what can exempt someone from duties in the sukkah, but the general idea seems to be that suffering there should not happen if leaving the sukkah and heading inside would solve the problem. Actually, women aren’t required to dine or sleep in the sukkah at all, and although many do choose to eat there, clearly any excuse at all is deemed reasonable if they’d prefer not to. If you’re an observant Jewish man who is reasonably healthy, you’ll almost surely make brief appearances in the sukkah regardless of the conditions outside (unless you’re in the midst of true meteorological disaster), but you won’t have to suffer long term, even if the situation is far from dangerous in any objective sense.
I like the way Sukkot interacts with nature. It celebrates the importance of agriculture and farming (farmers in Biblical times would live in temporary dwellings during harvest season), and the Israelites’ 40 years of traveling in the desert when they escaped slavery in Egypt — they slept in temporary dwellings during this time since they were on the move. Sukkot gets people outside of their usual homes and allows them to commune a bit with the air and the elements. But they don’t have to take it very far. There is no commandment to hike deep in the woods, or to roast your food over an open fire out in the wilderness to simulate the Israelites’ quick, makeshift meals during their journey. You can dine al fresco (kind of; you’re in a hut, but you can feel the weather) and sleep in the fresh air if it wouldn’t cause discomfort, however you might define it.
I often say that I hate nature, but that’s really just a joke. The odd and seemingly otherworldly landscapes of Turkey’s Cappadocia and Arizona’s Grand Canyon; the gorgeous colors flowers can have; the thrill of seeing gigantic cacti during a desert drive; the peace of floating on a raft in the ocean, my body touching the water through my bathing suit… I have exulted in all of these experiences, and many others. I even love holding a prism up to the early morning sun in my own living room, watching the light break into a multicolored spectrum.
Nature makes me happy as long as it’s comfortable. If I’m warm but not too warm, well rested, well fed, and safe, nature is groovy. Nature that I can enjoy has plenty of bathrooms; a clean and pleasant place to buy and eat tasty food, complete with tables and chairs; and kind guides stationed all around to help me if I get lost.
The problem with nature is that sometimes it’s entirely too nature-y. There’s no civilization anywhere: it’s just a bunch of woodsy crap that you could trip over, hitting your head on some sharp rock. Woods are OK if there’s, like, a little patch of woodsiness, right next to a lovely café that maybe serves quiche, tea, and scones. It might be nice to look out on some woods while my tea is steeping, or while I head to a clean, comfortable bathroom. But a whole big expanse of unadulterated woods is horrifying. It’s chock full of death: bird corpses, dead leaves and branches. It could harbor disease-filled, bloodthirsty ticks.
Though I love my privacy and alone time, I only enjoy it when I’m in an area that’s dense with people. That might sound strange. Wouldn’t a lover of uninterrupted thought relish nothing more than a walk in remote woods, or a hike on some secluded beach with gorgeous sand untouched by loud, ravenous humans? I mean… if there were some glorious beach or landscape where I could be alone except for humans who would cater to my needs and desires — someone to help me find my way, someone to make a café miraculously appear when I want lunch, someone to steer me away from danger and help me through physically challenging moments — I’d seize the opportunity with joy and excitement. But I’m too inept and averse to danger and discomfort to crave true aloneness, apart from the hum of humanity. Humanity means help if I need it. With humanity come bathrooms and well-cooked food.
Of course, humanity also brings the chance to get berated or slammed into… or even shot. Humans suck as often as they save each other. If I were one of those adept types who can climb, build, whip up a gorgeous meal, and swim with ease to the shore in rough waves, maybe I’d brave nature alone once in a while, to break life up and see where the shift might take my mind and my mood. But it’s not an option for me as I am.
One of my favorite states is being alone in a crowd. No one bothers me; no one directly interrupts my thought process, or makes me rush through the taste explosion in my mouth to keep up my part of a conversation during a meal. But there are people all around if I need them. If I’m OK on my own, I can enjoy them from afar. (Even a few inches away is far if they’re not defined as being with me, or part of a group that includes me. They’ll keep to their own crowd. It’s funny how that works. Often it’s convenient, but, every once in a while, it’s quite sad.)
In my experience, Sukkot celebrations are very people-oriented, very social — you’re in a crowd, and you’re not alone. You’re probably sitting around a tightly packed table, chatting and passing food around. And that can be fun too: I don’t always have to be alone when I’m enjoying a crowd.
Sukkot strikes me as an extremely Jewish holiday, which of course makes sense since it is a Jewish holiday. But it feels particularly Jewish to me, which means, I think, that it embodies many of the qualities I enjoy about the Jewish culture I’ve known. Of course there’s the food and the celebratory mood. And beyond that, there’s this very moderate approach to nature and facing the elements outside your home. Eat outside, unless discomfort will make it unpleasantly difficult for you. Isn’t that one of the most Jewish things you’ve ever heard? Sukkot commemorates an era when many Jews supported themselves through agriculture, and harvest time marked a crucial period in their lives. And of course some Jews are still involved with agriculture, but it’s much rarer today. Today, most Jews I meet work and live mostly inside.
Jews I’ve known have often pushed themselves and their children academically, artistically, ethically, and, at times, religiously. Nature is an arena where many Jewish children — and adults — can safely slack off, incurring little censure. Jewish kids who lose interest in school will probably face severe unpleasantness at home. If those same children want to drop out of scouting because the thought of camping freaks them out… well… every situation is different, and I know a few Jewish parents who would be very upset. But most in my orbit would let it slide without too much pushback. No wonder the rabbis seem so lenient when it comes to spending time in the sukkah. They need to cut their people some slack somewhere, and nature seems the perfect spot for some well-craved flexibility.