Stebbins: What we can all learn from Sukkot

Oftentimes, it seems that we’re afraid to care. We feel a strange self-consciousness when we are excited about something no one else is, as if we are leaping and laughing for a silent audience. Sometimes, we question our motives when faced with indifference. Other times, we try to push our excitement onto others, or maybe we simply resent those who come off as cold. Our joy feels justified when we trust and celebrate in something real, something we feel is universal.

We all have a stake in caring about what it is true. Our social norms are shifting so fast it is hard to keep track some days. To find what is true we must understand what is consistent about the human condition, and for that we have history. I read countless history books as a child, but my strongest connection to the past was always celebrating Jewish holidays. Cultural facts are wholly different from stories, and in telling narratives we see that people in different places and times also had internal conflicts, triumphs and insights, stories they told. Language and context change, but some things people have always cared about: family, stories and belonging.

The truth of a statement, like “I’ll always be there for you”, is only as true as it is acted upon. I propose that the truth of a statement is not only established but also revealed anew the more it is performed, like reading a novel until you understand the author’s mind itself. My ancestors have celebrated Jewish traditions for over 3,300 years, uninterrupted. Few things, minus nature and the cosmos, have continuously existed for that long.

I imagine that for a people known for challenging norms to have done things so repeatedly means that these customs must have contained significant personal value. I believe I have discovered a few kernels of truth in the ongoing nine-day “festival of our joy,” which encompasses the Jewish festivals of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. I trust that the reader finds some wisdom in these ideas regardless of background.

A Torah scroll is regarded as highly sacred, and on Simchat Torah, Jews carry it and dance. We view the Torah as the life breath of our ancestors, yet by infusing something so worthy of respect with joy, we accept the vulnerability of life’s precious things and celebrate the past without cowing to it.  

Human nature is to build. The sukkah is a temporary dwelling which we construct and deconstruct every year. Not everything we create has to remain forever.

We imagine our livelihoods as permanent. Natural disasters destroy this idea. We forget how vulnerable our walls of plaster truly are. Eating and living in the temporary sukkah forces one to be present and thankful for security.

Natural materials cover the sukkah, none of which can be tied down. Likewise, the roof atop our minds should be organic and not forced, thick enough to trap in the warmth but light enough so that stars shine.

Three solid walls defend the sukkah from the elements, lest the contents be swept away. Just as those walls must steadfastly oppose negative forces, so the final side must be equally as open to welcome guests inside.

Unlike the modern home, the sukkah does not hide any components of its structure. All too often, we laminate what we imagine as permanent, afraid to peer below the surface and see the moving parts. The proper functioning of a system takes precedence over the quality of its appearance, and a plain exterior can very well disguise a rich internal life.

At Chabad at Case Western Reserve University, hours and hours were spent painting walls that won’t stand past next week. This deadline only makes the time that will be shared within that much more special. Even the most fleeting moments can be beautified.

Vulnerability is an avenue to joy, which is why extreme sports are so appealing. Gratitude comes to those who trust in forces beyond their own talents.

Without a doubt, this list is incomplete. I pray we all find the beauty in our respective heritages, as I have glimpsed in mine.

Simchat Torah begins this Wednesday evening, Oct. 11, and Sukkot began last week. Chabad at CWRU sits on 2049 E 115th St. There are amazing meals at 6 p.m. every day this week.

Jonathan Stebbins is a fourth-year geology major.