The Passing Shade and The Withering Leaves: The Permanent Impermanence of Sukkot

I have an admission to make. I am terrible with Aravot.

Every year, no matter what I do, what measures I take, what advice I put into practice, my Aravot are dead by the middle of Sukkos. I don’t quite know what I’m doing wrong. I look around in shul, and see people with aravot that are still fresh and healthy, and I am overcome with hatred and anger and fear. Fear? Yes. Fear. For are we not all aravot, desperately trying to stave off our own mortality, clinging desperately to the branch as we are shaken during Hallel, slowly drying up and turning purple? Was our fate not sealed the moment we left the sealed package, nay, the moment we were cut from the willow tree? Yet we persist in trying to fool ourselves, to wrap ourselves in wet paper towels, to put ourselves in fridges, despite the knowledge that we will all wither and die and be discreetly replaced by a fresher bunch of aravot bought on Hoshana Rabba and then beaten into the ground, to be later swept up by the custodian, who only knows of Hoshana Rabba as “that day with all the bleeping leaves.” Are we not, when futilely trying to keep our aravot alive, symbolically trying to delay the fact of our own mortality? Is it not natural to be angry at those unperturbed by their fate?

Well, dear reader, I can see you shifting uncomfortably in your seat now, muttering, “wow, that got morbid fast”. It’s not my fault though. I just came out of Yom Kippur. It seems that mortality, and, more specifically, getting humanity to acknowledge and react to its own mortality, plays a large role in the character of the day of Yom Kippur. Be it the Rambam’s reason for why we say vidui at mincha before Yom Kippur, (because you might choke and die during the pre-fast meal, Hilchot Teshuva 2:7), or whether it is the liturgy of the day, particularly U’Netaneh Tokef, with its picture of man as ” broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”, or the whole structure of the day, with a final deadline set for getting one’s affairs in order, and the frequent reminders of the imminent nature of that deadline, all point to a day that is preoccupied with the concept of man’s imminent mortality. Yom Kippur strains to remind us that you are going to die, at possibly any moment, and that you’ve been wasting a lot of your time
In trying to get a person to recognize this essential fact, in trying to spur one to take charge of their life, the liturgy necessarily tends towards the vehement and extravagant.

מה אנחנו, מה חיינו, מה חסדנו, מה כחנו, מה גבורתנו. מה נאמר לפניך ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו. הלא כל הגיבורים כאין לפניך, ואנשי השם כלא היו, וחכמים כבלי מדע ונבונים כבלי השכל. כי כל מעשינו תוהו, וימי חיינו הבל לפניך, ומותר האדם מן הבהמה אין כי הכול הבל.

What are we ? What is our life ? What is our piety ? What is our virtue ? What is our help? What is our power ? What is our might ? what then shall we say in thy presence, O Lord, our God ! and the God of our fathers ? Are not the mightiest heroes as naught, before thee ; men of renown as if they had not existed ? wise men, as if they were without knowledge ? and the intelligent, as if void of understanding ? For the majority of their actions is emptiness ; and the days of their life but vanity in thy presence ; even the
pre-eminence of man over beast, is naught for all is vanity.



This is all necessary as a corrective, as an overcompensation for humanity’s general mindlessness and laziness, but there is a danger of taking these notions too seriously, of going too far to the other extreme. For if death will come to us all, what value is human action? There is so little time, and so much to do! Where does one start? How does one even start? What use is starting when everything I do is laughably transient and temporary? What purpose is there to building on such shifting sands? Such a destabilizing blow to one’s feeling of security on this earthly plane can be debilitating and paralyzing.

And then comes Sukkos. Now, before we say anything else, Sukkos is a weird holiday. I would wager it is our weirdest holiday, by a rather wide margin. What are we celebrating? Unclear. What are we supposed to be so happy about? Unclear. (this question and answer brought to you by Ashkenazi Jewry! “Ashkenazim: Why Should We Be Happy?!”) Why are we taking a bunch of plants together and waving them and then walking around in a circle with them? Totally unclear. Why are sitting in huts outside? Well, God told us why: Because we sat in huts once, which is the third least satisfying answer given by God in Tanach, behind his answers to Iyov (look at all this stuff I made!) and Yonah (… And a lot of cattle!). So, Sukkos is weird. Trust me, this becomes important.

There does, however, seem to be an overriding theme in the things we do on Sukkos that I’d like to point out. There seems to be many things we use in Sukkos that are temporary by their very nature. First of all, the Arba Minim are all plants, all of which will, being as they are organic matter, will eventually die, some of which do so aggravatingly quickly, as I have mentioned. Yet we are bidden to take them, and attempt, often vainly, to keep them alive and fresh for the whole of the holiday. Secondly and more obviously is the Sukkah itself, the Sukkah is a temporary structure which we relate to as permanent. We are תשבו כעין תדורו, we sit in the sukkah in the manner in which we dwell in our permanent we homes, and each Jew is commanded to עושה סוכתו קבע וביתו עראי, to eat, sleep, and sit in the sukkah in a manner of  קבע, permanence, though the Sukkah itself is עראי, temporary. (Sukkah 26b). There is no attempt to deny the fact that this is a temporary structure, no demand to actually move into the Sukkah, but to sit in it כעין תדורו, “like the way you dwell”. You are sitting in a temporary hut, fully cognizant of its temporary nature, but you are relating to it as if it is permanent. For both the Sukkah and the Arba Minim, we are commanded to treat a temporary object with permanence.

And this all comes back to our destabilized post-Yom Kippur individual, debilitated and paralyzed by the knowledge of his own mortality and transience. Sukkot says to him, that yes, everything is temporary, everything has an end, and you will one day die, and this would seem to render all of your decisions as insignificant. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for passivity. There is yet value in acting as if your actions have significance, despite what may appear to be the case from your perspective. That yes, there is significance to the passing shade of the Sukkah and the withering leaves of the Arba Minim. And to that end, one must leap headfirst into the absurd, into sleeping and eating outside, into the carrying and shaking of plant-bundles, to force oneself to reclaim their ability to make decisions that are not paralyzed by despair and doubt. Perhaps this is why we read Sefer Kohelet on Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos. For 12 Chapters, Shlomo HaMelech muses on mortality, transience, despair, doubt, and insecurity. And despite it all, his conclusion is  סוֹף דָּבָר, הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר, כִּי-זֶה כָּל-הָאָדָם, “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”. He has affirmed that despite the transience of it all, there is still significance to his actions.

To conclude, there is an idea, which I thought was Talmudic, but actually comes from a Metzudat David on Mishlei 15:30, that  אין שמחה כהתרת הספקות, “There is no joy like the resolution of doubt”. Perhaps this is the joy of Sukkos. The resolution of humanity’s doubts in itself and the significance of its actions by using the transient and temporary for permanence.

Chag Sameach!


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