Those low-rent Sinai booths


It’s a big mitzvah, you know, to “dwell in booths for  That’s what they tell us in Leviticus: Chapter 23.  As usual, we’re at the mercy of the translation.  It doesn’t mean “booths” like phone booths or kissing booths.  It means the huts, tents, and hovels of our vagabond ancestors who roamed the Sinai three millennia ago.  They were renters in the sandy suburbs, not home-owners in the heartland of Jerusalem.  They obviously weren’t anxious to settle down to

They were renters in the sandy suburbs, not home-owners in the heartland of Jerusalem.  They obviously weren’t anxious to settle down to homeownership and a mortgage with all its attendant responsibilities.  ”Oh we love it out here in the desert; no taxes, no yards to cut, no nosy neighbors, plenty of manna….”

There’s a rabbinic commentary explaining that our slave mentality was the deterrent that kept us in the desert for forty years.  Who wants to clear land, plow furrows, plant, and pluck grape vines in the Promised Land?  What’s promised, cried the cynics?  A bent back?  Aching muscles?  Rainless days, and windy nights to blow down your crops?  Slaves, say our rabbis (and modern behaviorists) are scared stiff by freedom.

They were also hesitant because they feared “the inhabitants of the land.”  Slaves – regardless of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus” – make lousy warriors:  even though the Master Mapmaker himself promised them that the land on the East shore of the Mediterranean would be colored blue for Israel.

The desert wasn’t all bad.  No work.  Sleep late.  Then lots of leisure time to talk about those Five intriguing Books that Moshe brought down from the mountaintop.  There was free manna spiced up with an occasional quail dinner.  And those low-rent booths; a concept due for reinvention 3,300 years later in rent-controlled Manhattan.

So, to remember all that, we relive it for seven days.  You must be able to see the stars and feel the rain, says our tradition.

It’s that condition that allows me to boast to my more observant friends that I’ve lived in a succah for twenty years.  Because for twenty years – Succot, Pesach, the High Holidays, Chanukah, and my sister-in-law’s birthday – we lived in a house with a leaky roof.  You could feel the rain if you went up into the attic.  And with a little imagination, see the stars.  “Who lives in a succoh only on Succot?” I boasted to my rabbi.

“And we sleep in it, too,” I added, “365 days a year.”  He didn’t look impressed.

The assistant rabbi (who only lives in his succah for seven days out of 365) looked unimpressed too.  “Ted, your house is not EXACTLY like the booths of our forefathers.”

Neither is the traditional succah, I thought.

Who knows what building material existed in the Sinai peninsula of 1300 BC?  Maybe the huts were made of animal skins.  Whatever their construction, they weren’t seven-day, bucolic, backyard mess halls – they were home sweet home all year ‘round.  We’re commanded to seven days of racial deja vu so that we never forget our origins:  a desert-bound tribe of vagabonds poor in possessions, but endowed with the riches of those Five shining Books.

We are also commanded on Succot to remember that we were befriended by the one True Allfather, who bent over the land of Egypt, picked us up by the scruff of our neck, and eventually brought us to our homeland.  The homeland promised by the covenant.

The deal was as clear as the moon over the cloudless desert: Follow my Commandments and the land is yours.  Simple.  But if Moses swooped over the land of Canaan today, he would be astonished to find that clear title to the land is still not ours.  Leaving only one of three explanations:

A)    A self-incriminating answer.  We did not fulfill our covenant responsibilities.

B)    An unthinkable answer.  The Almighty reneged on the agreement.

C)    A legal answer.  It all depends on what you mean by “Canaan”.

Moses, I’m betting, would go for answer A.  But maybe he should have insisted that the covenant be in writing and with a lot more detail.

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