Coming off the High Holidays, when we had to rethink how we did everything in order to keep people safe from the coronavirus, we move into Sukkot, and again need to think about how to observe this holiday and keep everyone safe.
As we do each year, we build a sukkah at our synagogue, the temporary structure that is meant to recall the dwellings our spiritual ancestors used while they were travelling in the desert towards the Promised Land. The sukkah also brings us close to nature, both through its exposure and natural roof. And the sukkah reminds us generally about themes of fragility and stability.
The sukkah that we usually build at our synagogue has walls on all sides, save for a doorway on one. We are used to gathering in large groups for sharing food and drink, song and story. This year, we know, will need to be different.
And not only because of the limitations on joining together in large groups. The “Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3 Religious and Faith-based Organization COVID-19 Requirements” issued by Governor Inslee have the following stipulation:
Outdoor services may be conducted under an outdoor structure
(temporary or permanent) so long as the structure is not walled/enclosed
on more than two sides to provide appropriate ventilation.
What is a sukkah if not an “outdoor structure (temporary or permanent)”? Creating two sides is easy enough, the only challenge is that Jewish law has other requirements. According to the Jewish sources, a sukkah must have three walls in order to be considered “kosher.”
But, as any good Talmudist would ask, what is a “wall”? As it turns out, a wall doesn’t need to be complete in order to be considered a wall–a sukkah wall must be a minimum of 28 inches in length. Therefore, our TBH sukkah is two walls with a short third wall–fulfilling to the best of our ability Jewish tradition and our state guidelines.
(If you see in the picture above, the sukkah is exposed on its longest side facing away from the building, thus providing the maximum ventilation.)
The sukkah, therefore, in this modified design, is a physical representation of the times we are living in. Moreso than a zoom room vs. a full sanctuary, which don’t resemble each other, the modified sukkah looks like our regular sukkah, but is different enough to remind us that things aren’t quite “right.” While we always call it a sukkat shalom, a sukkah of peace, this year it is also a sukkat briyoot, a sukkah of health.
And how relevant that we incorporate this new meaning into the physical structure of the sukkah this year. On Sukkot we traditionally read from Ecclesiastes, with that famous line, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: a time for being born, and a time for dying…” This text, like the sukkah, reminds us of the fragility of life, and that despite our efforts to build strength and support, there will always be a vulnerability to living.
As we learn on the eve of Sukkot that the President is infected with the coronavirus, we are reminded that this virus knows no bounds, it can and will infect anyone regardless of their position in life. The only difference is in outcome. We have seen how limited access to health care and limited financial means can result in worse outcomes. What happens with the President will no doubt be a result of the fact that, as President, he has access to the best health care and the attention of health professionals that very few people do.
So let this missing wall of our sukkah be a reminder to us, not only that we are still facing a pandemic and need to be cautious in our actions, but that this virus has exposed huge gaping holes in our society that perpetuate the fact that some are more vulnerable than others.
May this be a Sukkot of peace–and health–for all.