Settling into the Unsettled, Outside: Celebrating Sukkot in the Time of Corona
by Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin
Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin, Esq., an alumna of Midreshet Lindenbaum (’91), is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law and the Director of the Indie Film Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law.
Volleyball net. Outdoor patio heater. A pop-up canopy. Tables for one. Like many of us, my shopping list over the past few months has included a number of things that I didn’t normally think I would need, as our family shifted to spending most of our time outdoors. Like many of us, and depending on current guidelines, outdoors is the only place where we see small groups of family and friends, socially distanced and masked.
Normally, we approach Sukkot filled with confidence and joy from our completion of the Yamim Noraim, and excitement over the novelty of moving our lives outdoors for a few days. This year however, our Yamim Noraim were decidedly un-familiar, and we approach Sukkot, as I write this, with a sense almost of weariness, familiarized by now to the feeling of being displaced to the outdoors and feeling the void left from abnormal outdoor yom tov meals. Instead of preparing to be unsettled, to be outdoors and displace ourselves, we are almost settled into our displacement.
Sukkot is a chag that seems to in some way find meaning in displacement, in being unsettled. It seems just right for a pandemic. But what exactly do we celebrate on Sukkot? After all, the Torah tells us that in addition to Chag Hakatzir, the celebration of the harvest, we are told that we celebrate Sukkot לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. God tells us that we celebrate Sukkot in order that our generations will know that God caused Bnai Yisrael to dwell in booths when He brought them out of Egypt.
There are two message of note from this pasuk: the first is that we are celebrating an action of the Divine – it was God’s doing that we sat in sukkot; and second, that we are celebrating an ongoing action – the day in/ day out of forty years of sukkah-dwelling by Bnai Yisrael. In contradistinction to the other regalim, which celebrate big moments – Pesach, the actual exodus, and Shavuot, the giving of the Torah – Sukkot seems to celebrate the constancy of the day in and day out, rain or shine, hut–dwelling of Bnai Yisrael.
The gemara in Sukkah posits two possibilities of what we are celebrating on Sukkot: either the actual sukkot in which Bnai Yisrael lived or the anenei hakavod, the clouds of glory, that God rested upon them. The idea that it is anenei hakavod seems consistent with the framing above, i.e., that we are celebrating divine actions: God caused the clouds of glory to rest on the Jewish people and protect them.
There is alternate reading however, reflected in the gemara’s notion that we recall the actual sukkot. This celebrates the actions of people, and does seem to mark a moment in time. The Torah tells us וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, סֻכֹּתָה, כְּשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים, לְבַד מִטף, when Bnai Yisrael began their journey out of Mitzrayim, they left Ramses, and came to Sukkot. The people left Ramses, one of the great cities of the ancient Near East, and spent their first night in a place literally called something along the lines of shack-ville. (Sukkot, you may remember from Bereshit, seems to have received this name from where Yaakov stopped after leaving Lavan and built huts for his cattle.)
This is where Bnai Yisrael spent their first night, in Sukkot, having left the relative security of Ramses, sleeping with their children and sheep in animal pens. It is also where they ate the matzah, having been unable to bring adequate food.
The pasuk continues and reminds us that: וּמוֹשַׁב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָשְׁבוּ בְּמִצְרָיִם–שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה, וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. Literally, Bnai Yisrael had been settled in Egypt for 430 years. Imagine the displacement the people were feeling – they had left a place, which was far from perfect – they were slaves — but they lived there, they were settled there, for 430 years. They had roofs over their heads, neighbors, order, food. Their first disastrous night was spent in huts with nothing but matza to eat. We have a beloved children’s book called Arthur’s Family Vacation, where everything on a family trip goes wrong. And every parent who has traveled with children knows that there is a moment when you just need to turn around.
Yet, Bnai Yisrael stayed. They decided to lean into being unsettled. They saw the ways in which they didn’t have their normal institutions, rubrics, and structures and decided they would take a leap of faith, and would accept being unsettled. And unsettled they were – they never knew how long they would stay in a particular place, their food was unfamiliar, the road was long and uncertain and often filled with enemies. Yet they made an initial leap of faith! The gemara tells us this is what was celebrated – and they continued to accept the uncertainty.
It is in this meaning of Sukkot that I am finding comfort this year. The idea that Bnai Yisrael took a leap of faith into the unknown, into the displacement, into the unsettled, and then did that in a big way on the first night – that we are commemorating, as well as all the small moments, the day-in and day-out small leaps of faith, small steps in attempting to settle into their displacement, into being unsettled.
We are unsettled and removed from our normal structures. Many of us are displaced from our normal places of work, learning, and family. We are separated by oceans, states or provinces that used to feel quite small and now feel quite large. We are unsettled – by the news, by our shuls and schools, by a lack of routine, and by a lack of certainty about the future.
There is power in this moment in remembering that we are celebrating a holiday that is about the great spiritual power of accepting being unsettled, both in the moment and on an ongoing basis.
Further, as we reflect on a year when we saw laid bare around the world those who have power and those who lack power, those who are without protectors and those who have protectors, we should also note that the moment of remembering when we left Egypt, when we had only God as our protector under the anenei hakavod, the clouds of glory, when we had God who provided us booths, that such moments – remembering that we were once strangers in a strange land — are the animating purpose of our nationhood.