Mighty Lessons from the Simple Sukkah

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Some are predicting the imminent fall of the United States as a superpower – the latest of many empires that have risen and fallen throughout history.

The theory goes that after a nation rises in prosperity and strength, leading to affluence and luxury, its power begins to erode due to indulgence, arrogance, corruption and decadence.

Essentially the thinking is, that only at the outset of a nations rise – in its infancy and modest beginnings – does it maintain the humility and hard effort necessary to keep it honest and driven toward healthy growth and success. But once the nation reaches its greatest heights in wealth and power, once it dominates the world around it, the nation will succumb to natural and inevitable human conceit and greed, which lead to the nation’s decline and, in many instances, demise.

Every empire in history, without exception, has suffered this ultimate fate. No matter how great its power, every powerful nation has fallen under its own weight.

Can this cycle be prevented? Will the mighty United States of America ultimately go the way of all flesh?

The seemingly simple holiday we are about to celebrate holds the answer to this monumental question – the destiny of the American Empire.

On Sukkot, Jews all over the world will move out of their comfortable homes and – as they have done for over 3300 years – spend the next seven days eating and dwelling in makeshift, fragile huts, with relatively no protection from the elements.

Why will they do this? Because, as the Bible instructs: “dwell in booths for seven days…in order that your generations shall know that I housed the Children of Israel in booths when I took them out of the Land of Egypt” (Leviticus 39: 42-43).

Material success and prosperity can create the powerful illusion of invincibility. Despite the utter irrationality of feeling secure with anything temporary – and materialism, whether it is money, food or energy, is fundamentally ephemeral – the power of success is such that it can actually brainwash us into thinking that we are safe in its embrace. The fact is, the more dependent we become on the material, the less secure we really are. Like an addiction that can never be sated, the more we rely on forces that inherently cannot provide true security and safety, the harder it is to break the habit.

Comes Sukkot and wrenches us free from the stranglehold of material comforts. Dwelling in a Sukkah reminds us the source of true security in this hostile world. Not our man-made structures, not our concrete, steel, walled and gated homes, not any of our mortal creations can protect us from… mortality and from mortal enemies. True security comes not from our material structures but from our spiritual ones – from the Divine “clouds” that surround and protect us. The Sukkah reminds us that true and lasting power is derived not from human drives and innovations, but from the all-enveloping Divine presence.

For seven days – the full cycle of time – we make our material homes a temporary dwelling, and our Sukkot our permanent dwelling. During this time, we dwell in little huts where we eat all our meals and conduct all the activities of the day which we regularly would do at home.

Why would anyone want to leave their comfort zones, the warmth and expanse of a sprawling living room, feasting on a mahogany table in an elegant dining room, and instead move into a bare, unadorned, possibly cramped and cold Sukkah?

The answer is because the plain Sukkah remind us of our total dependency on a Higher presence – that our seemingly sturdy man-made shelters are nothing in the absence of His care.

The Sukkah teaches us that we are just travelers in this material world. Our physical dwelling places, as beautiful as they may be, are not our true homes. Your true home – where the ‘real’ you is comfortable – is not here in your material body and home; it is in your soul, which is much more grand and beautiful than anything that money could buy.

Sukkot is the ultimate antidote to the illusion of security due to material success. Just when we feel completely comfortable and secure in our mansions and properties, we are told to leave our homes and sit in modest thatched huts.

This small move can be the difference between life and death; between being smothered by the arrogance of material success and the freedom that comes from knowing that you are not a slave to man-made institutions and to other men.

The brilliance of the Sukkah lies in its sheer simplicity. This small little hut, so fragile and flimsy, teaches us the mystery of true invincibility: Only when we are ready to surrender our own self-made delusions of power and comfort, only when we are ready to replace our dependence on material comforts and trust in financial wealth for dependence on the ethereal and trust in the sublime, can we ensure that our affluence and prosperity will not self-destruct.

Therein lies perhaps the most important lesson for the future of the United States. The Founding Fathers in their brilliance recognized that for a nation to endure it has to be built not on transient and temporal underpinnings, but on an unwavering foundation. An empire built on self-made success and material affluence ultimately will self-destruct under the weight of its self-worship. The core foundation of the nation they established is therefore built not on business prowess and financial prosperity, but on the “self-evident” truths, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The simple Sukkah reminds us all that our security comes from the “unalienable rights” endowed upon us all by our Creator.

As the world economy is being shaken to its core – and questions are being raised about the future of capitalism in general, and the role of its primary steward, the United States – Sukkot gives us all pause to decide which way we will choose:

The path of the self-glorifying empires before us, whose self-absorption brought on their own demise?

Or the path of humility, one that reclaims the Divine values that this country was built upon, and reinfuses those values into our homes, businesses, economies and man-made structures?

Photo by Laura Thorne/Flickr.

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Fred
11 years ago

If your article was written to give hope for the future, it was nicely presented. If on the other hand you see the world as it is and is going to be, youre naive and most likely young.

ELLIOT KERSH
11 years ago

Thanks for that early morning learning.It made a lot of sense.
Chag Sameach, Shabat shalom.

shlomo dror
11 years ago

Very well put

Reid Friedson
11 years ago

Arrogant empire built of human conceit leaves us orphans of Mother Earth and the Heavenly Father.

Paul Slocumb
11 years ago

Amen and amen.

Joshua Abrams
11 years ago

Very compelling and true. Thank you rabbi Jacobson for this inspiring thought!

Joshua Abrams

yael
11 years ago

I enjoy the simple message in the article which is so timely in world that greed comes before love.

Norman Hauptman
11 years ago

Honorable Simon Jacobsons essay helped me to get back onto the wagon of spirit.Thank you Simon.

John Blass
11 years ago

ONce again, Rabbi Jacobson hits the nail squarely on the head. One of the things us MDs learn as soon we enter our clinical training is that our lives are everywhere and always in the hands of G_d. The dead lose control of their property. Even enforcing a will is up to other people whom G_d has stillkept alive.

Dovid Leib Grossbaum
11 years ago

Simon does it again. This is a great article which brings out the point clearly and concisely.

Dick Snyder
11 years ago

Materialism is proving to be the downfall of our society. Greed and overconsumption have destroyed our financial markets and threaten our natural resources. The need to protect our interests also driven by these same forces has created an out of control and overextended defense and security establishment that provides us with neither defense nor security, only more deficit spending and threats to our liberty.

Sukot
11 years ago

I start with the premise that the Torah is an empowering document. In the case of Sukkot, it empowers us at least on two levels.

The notion of surrendering ones home and taking refuge in a hut is a lesson in detachment and survival. It is a declaration of independence from the habitual sources of comfort. It is an iteration and testament to ones ability to survive as a dislocated person, perhaps in a hostile environ- ment, and still maintain a stable connection to life.

It teaches us that we are resourceful
and capable. And that we are competent enough to take care of ourselves, even under adverse conditions.

The Torahs narrative about our tradition introduces us to a man, Abraham, who is continually practicing detachment. Its not that he doesnt own anything, but rather, he is not owned by anything in his life. He is willing to give up his attachments over and over again, which is not to say that he
doesnt retain his connection with things and people. He still cares, yet he attains mastery through detachment.

Abraham realizes that attachment crowds out God. From my perspective, the idols that the Torah warns us about, are our attachments. The more dependence on things, the less room there is for God.

If you look at the Ten Commandments, there is an interesting juxtaposition
between the first and the tenth. The first references no form and no shape, and is totally of the spirit. The last speaks about things that are craved, ie attachments. They represent antithetical
values.
Therefore, Sukkot could be a seen as a declaration of power and freedom.

chana
11 years ago

agreed with every word, but from the teaser I thought the holiday you were referring to, that would prevent America from following the rise and fall of other empires, was Thanksgiving!

Chanoch Brown
11 years ago

Thnk you for the practical and wonderful insight. You nver cease to amaze me. Love & Peace and Chag Sameach. Chanoch

Batya
11 years ago

Sukos is also a reminder that Hash-m took us out of Egypt to bring us to our land, the land of Israel, and while in the desert he protected us with holy clouds. The huts are to remind us of that kindness that lasted till the JEws entered the land of Israel. The land of ISrael is ours and will always be.

Simcha Youngworth
11 years ago

hi Rabbi

my Rebbetzin keeps on telling us that America is on the brink of destruction, and she provides proofs for her claims form sources in the prophecies that talk of the end of days. I am not talking about a Rebbetzin who is somewhat alternative. She is a dedicated Chabadnik and a recognised Shlucha in the South African Jewish community. Have you seen any prophecies that indicate this eventuality? Simcha

Roxanne
1 year ago

Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” Hosea 12:8