How our Succas taught an amazing COVID lesson

October 15, 2020 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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On Rosh HaShanah, we re-affirmed our belief in an omnipotent G-D.  On Yom Kippur we cried out to Him to renew our relationship.  

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

And in our frail Succas we were able to gaze Heavenward and hopefully feel His caress.

Even in these most challenging times.

And now the Yamim Tovim are over and the rest of the year has begun. Can we find an ongoing lesson in what we have experienced?

The Torah offers that promise. In a verse which we read on both Yom Tov days of Succot (maybe its lesson needs to be reinforced twice), the Torah states: Celebrate this festival for G-D seven days in the year. (Lev. 23:41).

We know that the Torah does not waste a single word. Did it really have to write shiv’at yamim ba-shana, “seven days in the year?” Wouldn’t “seven days” have been enough?

Clearly, the message, as interpreted by our Sages, is that the seven days of Succot ought to serve as a guide and a yardstick for us to learn and to measure ourselves up the entire year long!

On no Yom Tov as much as Succot are we as constantly aware how much we rely on the One Above!  One violent storm and our Succa becomes waterlogged and unusable, or perhaps disintegrates altogether!

This dependence-awareness is salutary. It serves to remind us that the whole year, our entire sustenance, our livelihoods, indeed our lives, depend upon Him. This is a truth whose seeds had already been planted on Rosh Hashanah in the Unetane Tokef prayer and which is graphically illustrated on Succot when we deliberately place ourselves in a vulnerable dwelling in order that the lesson should leave its mark.. As if this year it has not done so already as we find ourselves powerless in the face of Covid-19 with second- and third-waves hitting populations who had imagined they were now immune and with country after country increasingly uncertain of the effectiveness of their lockdown strategies.

Succot graphically brings home to us the lesson of our vulnerability. Maybe that is why G-D so frequently sends us rain on this festival – to test how we react.

How do we react?

Over the years, I have witnessed – and indeed evinced – three main reaction to the unwelcome presence of heavy rain (or hail as we experienced briefly in Sydney this year) during our meals in the Succa.

One reaction is denial.  We pretend the rain isn’t there, continue eating and singing despite the heavy adumbration of our chicken-soup with murky rainwater, pretend we’re still as happy as sandboys and kid our macho selves that we’re great tsaddikim.

A second reaction is anger.  We resent having to uproot ourselves having just made ourselves comfortable, we cry aloud in frustration (or hold our irritation within ourselves)  at the ruined chairs,and tablecloth, we grumble vociferously as we take our plates and our silverware and trudge back into our houses morosely.

A third reaction is apathy.  We look at each other and say: “Oooh, it’s raining! We’d better go indoors!”  In truth, we’re not too bothered at all and are perhaps quietly happy to have a heter (excuse) to be back in the comfort of our homes. This is the reaction of most of us.  It isn’t as reprehensible as the first two reactions.  But in truth none of the above is what the halacha approves. 

So what is the desirable response?

Rabbi Moses Isserles, the Remo (130-1572) in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch, furnishes us with the answer. Basing himself on the last Mishna in Tractate Succa (2:9) dealing with the Succa, he declares: Whoever  is exempt [through force majeur] from staying in the succa and [despite his discomfort] does not leave gets no reward  and those who act in this way are nothing but idiots ….[Moreover] When one leaves the Succa due to heavy rain, he should not stomp out [angrily] but should go out humbled like a servant who prepared a glass of wine for his master which the master [displeased with the quality of service] poured back in his face!

This halacha is teaching us a remarkable conceptual lesson. The rain did not fall by accident. G-D sent it!  G-D is somehow not happy with us at this time and wants us out! He has poured rain in our faces! Therefore denial is not the correct response. Nor is anger.  And viewing the storm as just a random act of nature and not being bothered by having to leave misses the point too!  Rather the didactic lesson we are to learn is that nothing occurs by chance and that we need to reflect, regroup and refresh. For our own betterment!

What a mighty lesson this is in how we should be responding to Covid-19 this year.  (Let’s recall the message of the extra word ba-shana. Succot is a paradigm for the entire year!)

Many have been and continue to be in denial over Covid-19. It is particularly distressing to Torah-observant Jews worldwide the majority of whom have acted very responsibly, following health and safety guidelines to the letter and sometimes beyond, that a vocal minority of those who call themselves Charedim in parts of Israel and in New York are in total denial, having gathered in huge numbers over the Yom Tov season and for weddings, creating chilul haShem and jeopardising their health and that of others in the process – just like those who defiantly cough and sneeze and splutter in the rain in their Succas refusing to leave when the halacha requires them to!

When confronted and forced to conform, some of them become angry, adding insult to injury. They point out (with some justification as it happens) that their governments have turned a blind eye to political demonstrations and are singling out the charedi community for blame.  As if two wrongs make a right! (I stress again that those charedim acting this way are a small but vocal, localised minority). They can be compared to those of us who leave the drenched succa angrily and resentfully.

And the vast majority of us? We are in the third category.  Our response to Covid is that it is an unfortunate “once-in-a-century” pandemic that we just have to live with until we get a vaccine.  We must obey the rules and learn to get used to them until the virus passes.. Some of us are secretly (or not so secretly) happy with some of the regulations that have enabled us to work from home more, exempted us from some social obligations and even – dare one say it  – relieving us from guilt for not attending our places of worship. We are like those who leave the succa apathetically, in the face of rain, opining that it is “just one of those things”.  And that too is not the desirable halachic response!

Only the vivid “water-in-our-face” analogy of the Remo will guide us to the optimal response to Covid-19. G-D has sent the world this pandemic for reasons we know not.  But it is not random, nor is it without cause. It is instead a cause for us to reflect upon what we, individually and globally, should be doing to put our houses in order.  This may require more than a cursory self –evaluation, even more than the effort we have put in for Elul and Tishri which is so often so fleeting. It may require us to make a total ideological transformation, re-examining the secularity and superficiality of our responses to the things which come our way every single day!

Is there a G-D? Does He seek our ultimate good?  Is He aware of our daily thoughts and struggles? Does He yearn for our spiritual growth?  Is He in absolute control of everything that happens in this universe?  Does he cede to us moral choice? Does He rejoice when we make good moral choices? Does He re-evaluate consonant with our growth? Does He heed our heartfelt prayer?

If our answers to all these questions is “yes, we believe it!” – and hopefully it is, otherwise we probably wouldn’t be writing or reading these words – there is a consequence.  Not just in terms of what we do differently. Not just a resolve to be more careful with our speech, with our berachot, with our Shabbat observance, give more generously to tsedaka, be more charitable in our assessment of others, all of which are tremendously worthy resolutions. But we need to resolve to do something way more challenging, namely, revise our whole hashkafic (ideological) approach to the events of our life.  In short – to become G-D-centred.

It isn’t easy to make such a volte-face, such a drastic ideological cheshbon ha-nefesh..  But maybe Covid-19 requires that we do so. That we come to the humble realisation that G-D is in charge. Always!  He created the world and because one’s creations are beloved to Him, He loves the world.  He loves us. And He dispatches loving, refining, corrective messages to us daily, hourly, in every facet of our lives. Everything, whether good or not so good in our eyes, is from Him. And everything He sends our way is for our ultimate benefit if only we decipher and internalise the messages!

Blessedly, Succot has provided us with the key!

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