Build Yourself a Hut

October 07, 2017
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the most important figures of the American literary canon, and, by a certain telling, the creator of one of the most important sukkahs ever built in America. It was two hundred years ago – July 12, 1817, to be precise – that the transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau arrived into this world. Thoreau’s writings, most famously his essay “Civil Disobedience,” would have a deep and lasting effect in both style and content on Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and pretty much every high school student who was required to read him, myself included.

Thoreau’s most famous essay, Walden, is a compressed account of his stay on the shore of Emerson’s Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1845 to 1847. Significant for us today, Thoreau’s experiment in simple living was prompted by a letter from his dear friend the famous Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing, who, sensing Thoreau’s need for focus, urged him to “Go out . . . build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.”

I have no idea if either Channing or Thoreau knew of the holiday of Sukkot, and it was in July, not October, that Thoreau first took up residence in his temporary abode, but living in a hut is exactly what Thoreau did for the next two years. Why did Thoreau do it? In his own words:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to [con]front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (Walden, pp. 172-173) 

Thoreau would go on to live in a self-imposed social experiment designed to instruct him on the difference between that which is fleeting and that which is of enduring worth. In being exposed to the elements and subjected to the whims of nature, Thoreau hoped his soul, his intellect, and his pen would be prompted to separate out those things in this world that are truly important. Thoreau’s subsequently published book, Walden; Or Life in the Woods, was an extended meditation reflecting on what he discovered. Not surprisingly, one of the lessons of Walden is that it is in our awareness of the fragile and precarious nature of life that we become attuned to its precious nature, and by extension, all the more appreciative of all that life has to offer. In Thoreau’s words: “. . . Love your life, poor as it is. . . The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.” For Thoreau, happiness is not to be found in the accumulation of material goods. In fact, just the opposite. In language reminiscent of the rabbinic sage Ben Zoma, Thoreau wrote: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let go.”

In order to fulfill the commandment of Sukkot, we must, the tradition teaches, expose ourselves to nature. We take our lives, our meals, and sometimes, depending on where we live, our sleep out into the elements. The whole point of building a sukkah, after all, is to recreate the impermanent existence of the ancient Israelites in their wilderness wanderings and to be reminded of their dependency on God’s creation. We are meant to divest ourselves of our creature comforts; we are supposed to be a bit uncomfortable. And yet, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, Sukkot is unique among our festivals in that it is known as z’man simhateinu, the time of our joy. We are literally commanded to be happy, as the book of D’varim states: “You shall make the festival of sukkot for seven days . . . you shall rejoice in the festival . . . and you shall be akh sameah, only (or exclusively) joyous.” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

I do believe, as Thoreau came to understand, that our ability to hold these two ideas in mind at the same time – to embrace this paradox of being both wholly vulnerable and wholly joyous – bears a potent response to the spiritual challenges of our hour. This year, perhaps more than any year in recent memory, we are attuned to the delicate and unpredictable nature of our existence. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and a humanity reeling in the face of it all. As the devastation has struck and the humanitarian crises continue to unfold, even the most stout of heart among us have had their confidence shaken and sense of security unhinged. How can we, we rightfully ask, respond in a world so unpredictable, so often filled with pain and sorrow? In the face of it all, we could, if we so chose, respond with despair and anguish, hopelessness, and gloom.

Not so, teaches Sukkot. It is precisely because we are vulnerable, precisely because we are uncertain as to what tomorrow will bring that we must embrace life for all it has to offer. We must be akh sameah, only joyous. It was my teacher in rabbinical school, Dr. Yochanan Muffs, z”l, who taught me that the word sameah, like the word simhah itself, does not refer to a banal, mindless, “don’t worry, be happy” sort of happiness. There is a difference, as a friend and congregant recently taught me, between being happy and merely having fun. Simhah refers to a specific kind of joy, a full-hearted, willing joy that signals a profound awareness of the blessings being experienced at any given time. There is simhah in the hard-won fruits of our labors, there is simhah in the blessings of family and community. There is simhah in what my predecessor Rabbi Milton Steinberg described as the simple things in life. A simhah that reminds us to pause, breathe in and recognize how very lucky we are to be alive right now. It is simhah that demands of us, in Thoreau’s words, to suck the marrow of our existence, to live with an awareness that while there may be, as Ecclesiastes, the teacher of this festival, counsels, a season for every experience in this world – to laugh, to cry, to live, to die – none of us know when that season will actually arrive. In the face of not knowing, we must, therefore, eat our bread . . . and drink our wine with joy and live with the one we love “all the days . . . that God has given . . . beneath the sun.” (9:7-9) To live akh b’simhah, only with joy, is not a call to live casually or indulgently, just the opposite. To live with only joy means that we hug our loved ones more tightly, and we allocate our resources more thoughtfully and more generously knowing just how finite our time and all our resources actually are. To live with joy is to know just how precious the blessing of life is and to be reminded of our responsibilities to our shared humanity – all of us living together in such precarious circumstances.

Lest we forget, it was but days ago, in the afternoon hour of Yom Kippur, that we encountered the most famous sukkah of the holiday cycle. Having saved the city of Nineveh from destruction, Jonah could not bring himself to understand God’s designs and left eastward in frustration. In response, God provided Jonah with a sukkah, a temporary dwelling place. The sukkah, God explains to Jonah, comes and goes – like life itself. You can be aggrieved and upset, or you can respond in a Godlike fashion with acts of compassion, a demeanor of forgiveness, and an appreciation for what you do have, not what you don’t. It is a posture of gratitude, self-reliance and social responsibility that lies at the heart of Jonah, Kohelet and, for that matter, the transcendentalist philosophy of Thoreau. Today we look at our world and respond with acts of generosity, putting our words into action, committed to doing our part to mend this world in such desperate need of healing.

Do I have an answer for why nature has lashed out with such fury in these past weeks? Does anyone have an answer to the question of why there is so much unexplained suffering in this world? Of course not. But in the face of the unknowing, I do have a response and it is two-fold. First, I ask myself what I can do to assist those in need of healing, and I respond with presence, compassion and, if appropriate, acts of tzedakah. Second, I respond by making a point of appreciating that which I do have in the knowledge that those things are not here to be enjoyed forever. The sweet smell of a newly purchased etrog, the kiss of a child just before bed, the sound of the first chord of your favorite song, a sip of single malt at a Shabbat meal, the sight of a full moon when out for a walk with a loved one. These and so many other things are meant to be savored; they won’t last forever. So let us, as the holiday commands, enjoy them with a heart full of simhah, a joy that announces to the world that while we may not understand the ways of creation, we do appreciate it and, more importantly, we are committed to making the very most of it.