Shabbat Shalom. Tomorrow evening begins the holiday of Sukkot or the Feast of Booths. During the day tomorrow we will be building our congregation’s Sukkah, and so this morning I would like to spend some time and consider the lessons the Sukkah and Sukkot have for us today. The Sukkah teaches us of our complete dependency on Adonai and the need to have joy that is not dependent on our lives circumstances.
My first experience with a Sukkah and Sukkot was when I was around 8 years old and still attending Reform Hebrew School. During our class we were herded outside to go and see the Sukkah that had been built. From the outside it was very similar to the one we build here at Shema, made from wood and with an open side. It was covered with loose leafy tree branches and flowers as well. When we entered the Sukkah I remember being surprised by how it was decorated, with art and cloth covering the walls and a decorated table on the inside. I learned that we were to eat meals and generally spend time in this place during Sukkot.
We were taught how the roof of the Sukkah needed to be made from loose leafy materials like palm leaves, and that you were supposed to be able to see the stars when looking up. A sukkah roof was also to be open enough for rain to come in. While in the Sukkah a Rabbi came and walked us through the blessing for Sukkot, pulling the Etrog from a silver box.
But more than even the decorations or blessings of the Sukkah, I remember how fragile the entire place felt. We were warned over and over again to be careful not to lean against the walls, because of how easy it was to make the entire place collapse. It was also so open that the wind on that day would move all the items around inside. It seemed to me that this Sukkah was very poorly put together and way too delicate to live or eat meals in.
Now I was told that the instructions for how to build the Sukkah were found in the Torah, but we did not spend much time in the actual Scriptures. Years later I would read for myself the Lord’s establishment of Sukkot in Leviticus 23:39-43:
“So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days; the first day is a day of sabbath rest, and the eighth day also is a day of sabbath rest. On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
We can see the reason the Lord commanded us to celebrate Sukkot is so that we would remember our lives in the wilderness. In the harsh wilderness our people wandered in, there were no permanent houses. Instead, we lived in a temporary way, which could easily be taken down and moved as the Lord instructed us where to go. We were completely dependent on God to provide for our needs in the wilderness, including weather that would not destroy these homes.
In warmer climates, like in Israel, it is not uncommon for people to take all their meals in the Sukkah and to even sleep in it for the duration of the holiday. On pleasant days the Sukkah at first glance can seem like a beautiful and totally adequate shelter. But on a typical fall day in Michigan of rain and cold, leaking through the drafty Sukkah, its’ inability to properly shelter us is revealed. It is also common to have to rebuild the Sukkah, whether from a strong wind knocking it down or some other force of nature. The Sukkah therefore is a natural metaphor for our lives in this world.
The Rabbis have noted that Sukkot last for seven days and the years of our lives according to Moses are typically 70. When we sit under the Sukkah we are reminded of our own lives and how very short and chaotic they are.
To sit under the Sukkah is to be taken away from the creature comforts of our modern lives, all those things we that we have that give us the illusion of security and control, or that serve to distract us.
When I think about our dependency on the Lord and the temporary and fleeting nature of our lives I come back to King David in Psalm 39:4-7:
Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.
“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.
“But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.
I shared this passage last year during Sukkot, but a little over a week ago I was reminded of these truths myself on my way back to work. As I was driving. a truck on the other side of the road crossed several lanes and came at me head on. At first I assumed he would turn away but several seconds later, he was still coming at me head on without breaking. By Adonai’s mercy I was able to swerve out of the way but the car behind me was T-Boned with a loud impact. I do not know what happened to the people involved in the accident and I pray they are okay, but I saw that the truck hit this car hard enough to completely collapse the front-end and impact the engine.
Shaking, while pulling over and calling 911, I thanked the Lord that I was still alive and it was not my time to die. But in that moment I saw my own mortality head-on and the Lord let me know how fleeting my life is. Just like the Sukkah, my body could be destroyed so very quickly.
As fallen human beings we want to believe that we are in complete control of our lives and destiny, that we can somehow tame or ignore the uncertainty of life in a dark and fallen world. For some of us we find pleasurable distractions. For others, it is in trying to be zealously prepared for whatever life may throw at us, whether it is through amassing knowledge or feeling secure in the numbers we may see in our accounts. But as King David wrote, “…in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be.…”, despite all our attempts to prolong and enhance our lives it can all end in a fleeting moment.
So if our lives are indeed temporary and flimsy like a Sukkah, subject to things outside our control, what are we to do? King David understood that the only hope for life in this world was in the Lord. Only by knowing God and being in a real relationship with Him can you survive life in this world.
But being in a real relationship with Adonai is about so much more than just surviving, it is also the only way to experience real Simchah, real joy. Because Joy is another command the Lord has given us for Sukkot. That we are to rejoice before him, as we read in Leviticus.
This can seem to be like a paradox though, to experience joy, while at the same time realizing the harsh and temporary nature of our lives in this world. But it is a puzzle with a solution which we find at the end of 2 Corinthians 4.
Rabbi Paul, like King David was a man who understood deep suffering. In his letter to the Corinthians, Rabbi Paul explained all the ways he and those like him were persecuted. They were imprisoned, beaten, whipped, mocked, and eventually killed for proclaiming the reality of Messiah Yeshua. But this did not cause him to doubt Adonai or give up. We read that what allowed him to have joy, to give thanks even in the middle of serious persecution, was the promises of Adonai. This included the promise that all those who believe and accept the atonement of Messiah Yeshua will be raised eternal with Him.
This also leads to a powerful conclusion at the end of 2 Corinthians 4 that echoes through to today:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Rabbi Paul had a powerful hope in Adonai and because of that hope he could call all that he suffered “light and momentary affliction”. This hope was part of what allowed him to have joy even as he ministered in very difficult circumstances. Rabbi Paul, through the Holy Spirit, teaches us that the only way we can have joy in difficult circumstances is for it to be found in Adonai and not ourselves. It is a hope in the promises of God, those he made to our ancestors, and the ones that are available to us today. We may not be able to see them with our eyes, but that is okay.
When we turn our lives over to Adonai, accepting that we are completely dependent on him, a real transformation happens. We will still experience suffering in this fallen world and we may fall down because of it, but the Lord will rebuild and sustain us. Just as the Lord lead us through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so He will lead us through the wilderness of this life to the promise of everlasting life with Him.
The reality of this life is that each one of us will die, and everything on this Earth including our money, power, and prestige will eventually fade away. In the end our bodies, like Sukkahs, will eventually be torn down. If we are fortunate it may be 70 or 80 years, but regardless of their span our lives are always too short and fleeting.
But we can still have joy and hope inside ourselves because the things of God are eternal. The Lord’s promises are also eternal and he has promised us an eternal body, a lasting building and not a temporary Sukkah. If we accept the Good News of Messiah Yeshua, we have the real promise of eternal life.
Through Messiah Yeshua we have the same joy that is not dependent on our circumstances just like Rabbi Paul had. We will also experience the peace of God, which sustains and rebuilds us through the trials of life. So through God’s eternal promises we can have confidence that no matter our suffering in this life, that the Lord will be there to comfort us, and when we pass away, it will be to eternal glory with Him.
Or we can choose to follow our own way. We can choose to rely on only ourselves and not the Lord. But eventually life will break us down, just as it does an unattended Sukkah, and we will experience the eternal consequences of turning away from our Creator.
I pray that each of us chooses God and gives the Lord the first and best in our lives. I also pray that as we enter into this joyous season of Sukkot that we will learn to be more dependent on the Lord and not ourselves. May the peace of God, through Messiah Yeshua, give us joy in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. May we all remember what the Lord has done for our people in the past, is doing now in our lives, and look forward to eternal life with Him.