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Duct tape and all, sukkah is holy place

ENCINO, Calif., Sept. 21 (JTA) — What is a sukkah? To Rabbi Akiva, the sukkah represents the actual huts that housed the Israelites during their 40-year trek through the wilderness. To Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkah symbolizes the Clouds of Glory, encompassing God’s presence, that accompanied and protected the Israelites. To my four sons, who are not talmudic rabbis, the sukkah represents a pile of redwood boards and lattice-work panels that have to be extricated from the garage rafters, hauled out to the backyard and assembled. “Not again,” Jeremy, 15, complains. “The Israelites didn’t have to deal with broken bungee cords and splinters that never come out of your hand.” “Or an inverse proportion of duct tape to redwood,” my husband, Larry, adds. But to answer the question, a sukkah — which seems to have more requirements regarding height, width and acceptable roofing material than California’s building code — is both physical and metaphysical, natural and supernatural. It represents the frail, impermanent huts of the Israelites, leaving them exposed and unprotected. And it simultaneously represents the Clouds of Glory, providing security and guidance. The Torah says, “The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night.” (Exodus 13:21) And that sheltering presence is available even today for, according to the Jewish mystics, “when a person sits in his sukkah, the Shechinah — God’s divine presence — spreads its wings over it.” The sukkah is holy space. Which is why we’re supposed to decorate it as beautifully as possible with fruits, pictures and New Year’s cards, for example, and to bring out our good dishes and tablecloths. Long ago, God’s presence dwelled in specific structures on earth. After presenting the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, God said to Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) God’s presence thus resided in the mishkan, or tabernacle, resting atop the Holy Ark and accompanying the Israelites on the remainder of their desert journey. Later, after King Solomon’s temple was built, God dwelt in the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary where only the High Priest could go, and only on Yom Kippur. But after the destruction of the second temple and the exile of the Jews, the Shechinah departed. “But isn’t God everywhere? Why does God need a particular place?” Danny, 13, asks. “Maybe the specific place is a direct line — the red telephone — to God,” Gabe suggests. But even if God is everywhere, it is difficult to feel God’s presence. There is no mishkan or temple today. And while an encounter with God can occur any place, the sukkah, according to the Jewish mystics, provides a specific physical structure, a holy place in which the Shechinah lives. Gabe, in fact, already knows about connecting with God. When he was 3 years old, sitting in his nursery school classroom in semi-darkness, unhurriedly finishing his lunch while his classmates lay on the floor on mats, sleeping or resting quietly, he called his teacher over. “Debbie, I feel God,” he told her. On that day, 14 years ago, something mysterious and transformative took place, something Gabe cannot even now explain. On that day, for Gabe, that classroom at Temple Beth Hillel Preschool in North Hollywood, Calif., became a holy place. Like Gabe, we have an opportunity to also encounter God in a personal, private and profound way. And to realize that what protects us — and will always protect us — are not physical structures, no matter how strong, or masses of material possessions but rather the continuing and awesome presence of God. This message is as important today as it was more than 3,000 years ago. The sukkah serves as a respite from the outside world, from mundane annoyances and aggravations to monumental injustices and disasters. It provides an opportunity to sit serenely and contemplatively in a world that, three years after 9/11, seems even more unsafe. This year we are reeling from the 100-plus mile per hour winds of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan. From the bombs and blasts in Iraq that have killed more than 1,000 United States soldiers and between 10,000 and 30,000 Iraqis. And from the relentless and violent terrorist attacks in Israel, Russia and elsewhere, with the certain threat of more to follow. But, as the Torah commands, for seven days we will dwell in our sukkah, beginning on sundown on Sept. 29. We will rejoice with family and friends. We will also listen for God, not in the roar of the world’s calamities but through the s’chach, the organic material on the roof, as we look gaze skyward. And if we listen carefully, we can perhaps, like Elijah, hear God in “a still small voice.” (I Kings 19:12) May we all find the comfort and protection of God in our own backyard, even in a sukkah as rickety and jerry-rigged as ours. (Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.)