ENCINO, Calif., Oct. 4 (JTA) – Move over, Richard Hatch. For 13 weeks this past summer, you lived in a makeshift shelter on a South China Sea island, roasting rats, manipulating interpersonal alliances and winning $1 million as the last person on the U.S. television show “Survivor.” Big deal.
For thousands of years every fall – without fanfare and without shedding our clothes – millions of Jews worldwide have lived in makeshift shelters constructed in our own backyards and balconies, schools and synagogues.
Of course, we haven’t parlayed our week of alfresco living into guest appearances on television shows or new careers as radio talk show hosts. And we certainly haven’t enjoyed a day dedicated in our honor in Middletown, R.I.
We have, however, continued to fulfill God’s commandment (Leviticus 23:42-43) to “live in booths seven days in order that future generations may know I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
And we have learned – not vicariously and voyeuristically like the 58 million Americans who watched your final episode of “Survivor,” but experientially and repeatedly – what it means to be a real survivor. What it means to endure more than 5,000 years of hardship, hatred and persecution. What it means to put our faith and our future in God’s protective powers.
“Maybe CBS should film us sitting in our sukkah,” my 11-year-old son, Jeremy, not immune to the allure of Hollywood, suggests.
“That would be even more boring than watching ‘Survivor,’ ” Gabe, 13, answers.
“It wouldn’t be boring if I’m the star,” says Zack, with the immodest confidence of a 16-year-old.
“Then it would be ‘Big Brother,’ ” says Danny, 9, referring to another U.S. reality-based television show.
We Jews don’t need reality TV. We have reality-based religion. For Judaism, with its emphasis on participation not passivity, on action not apathy, commands us not merely to remember significant historical and spiritual events but actually to reenact them.
At Pesach, we are commanded to regard ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt.
On Shavuot, we are commanded to see ourselves as if we are standing at Mount Sinai – like we are the first generation to receive the Torah.
And during Sukkot, we are commanded to construct flimsy huts to serve as our principal residences for seven days. To remind us of the temporary structures that housed the ancient Israelites as they wandered in the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land.
Of course, in the desert, the Israelites didn’t have to worry about pitching and striking their portable homes. God built the shelters, which Rabbi Eleazer proclaimed were “Clouds of Glory” but which more probably resembled flapped tents.
“Where are the step-by-step instructions?” my husband, Larry, asks every year, staring at the massive pile of lattice-wood panels, poles, hooks and bungee cords that he and our four sons have dragged from the garage to the backyard.
“We never had any,” I invariably reply.
Eventually, after some frustrating false starts and conflicting suggestions, my husband’s architectural expertise and sukkah-building memories return.
As we decorate and settle into our less-than-luxurious temporary tabernacle, our collective memories also return – of our long history of homelessness.
Since the Exodus, we Jews have been regularly and painfully uprooted and routed – from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., to our eviction from Spain in 1492, to our near-extermination in Europe during World War II.
These expulsions – and I have mentioned only the most egregious – have taught us about the miraculous resilience of the Jewish people. They have also taught us an important secret of survival – that our greatest and most enduring security lies not in firm foundations and permanent walls and roofs. Rather, it lies in our faith, in our belief in God’s ability to guard over us.
“This year, I’m going to try as hard as I can to sleep in the sukkah,” Danny bravely says. Still not certain that God’s protection will suffice, however, he adds, “But I need a flashlight and a brother.”
The holiday of Sukkot gives us an introspective look at our individual faith and a retrospective look at our often perilous and peripatetic past. It also allows us a peek at our prospective future.
These four sukkah-building boys are an essential part of that future. These boys who boast about how many panels they can carry at one time, who jostle and joke and provide commentary.
“If the holiday is about survival,” Gabe points out, “why didn’t the Israelites put together their own sukkahs?”
But I realize that the commotion and the questions are part of the ritual, which results not merely in the creation of a shaky hut and the world’s longest construction-paper link chain – but also in the building of a solid foundation in Judaism and a deep storehouse of cheerful childhood memories.
As former Soviet dissident and current Israeli Knesset member Natan Sharansky said, “The survival of the Jews as a people depends on our ability to give our children the feeling that there is a special meaning to Jewish existence.”
Sukkot helps give our children that special meaning.
No, Richard Hatch, we Jews don’t need to engage in contrived spectacles of spearing fish, eating bugs and plotting against one another. We don’t need to indulge in grandstanding or grandiosity. We can seek authenticity and adventure through our own religion – quietly, meaningfully and joyfully.
(Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.)