Finding Permanence in the Temporal, and Impermanence in the Permanent

We build a Sukkah (a temporary hut), in memory of the temporary huts the Children of Israel built in the desert. Rich and poor sit in a temporary construction exposed to the elements. The Haftarah of Sukkot, from Ecclesiastes, reminds us that life in this world is temporary, ephemeral:

Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1, 2).

The opening verses of Ecclesiastes place all earthly matters (social status, pedigree, nationality and possessions) as opposed to their emptiness (vanity of vanities). It does not mean that all material things are meaningless, but rather it is an acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of worldly goods.

We tend to cling to what we perceive as permanent: social status, belonging to a family and to a place, our house and our belongings. In situations in which the permanent becomes unstable – a loss of loved ones, a change in social status or economic insecurity – we experience anxiety and insecurity.

It seems like the permanent house is a complete contrast to the temporary sukkah. Masechet Sukkah challenges us into finding the permanent in the temporary, and the temporary in the permanent. We are instructed to bring our vessels and bedding from our permanent house, into the temporal sukkah, and sit in the sukkah as if it is our permanent home.

All seven days of Sukkot, a person renders his sukka his permanent residence and his house his temporary residence. How so? If he has beautiful vessels, he takes them up to the sukka, which was typically built on the roof. If he has beautiful bedding, he takes it up to the sukka. He eats and drinks and relaxes in the sukka. The Gemara asks: From where are these matters derived? The Gemara explains that it is as the Sages taught: “In sukkot shall you reside” (Leviticus 23:42), and they interpreted: Reside as you dwell in your permanent home (Sukkah 28b).

This is an invitation to break down the dichotomy between the permanent and the temporal, an invitation to experience the temporal within the permanent and the permanent within the temporal.

During Sukkot we add a verse from the prophet Amos to the blessing of food: “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David [David’s Sukkah] that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old” (Amos 9, 11).

Interestingly the kingdom of David is presented as a sukkah, a temporary hut, and not as a permanent house. The Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, suggests that the fall of a house is finite and unchangeable. When you re-build a house it is always a new house, and there’s no going back to the old, ruined house. A sukkah, on the other end, is eternal in the sense that it is easy to fall, and easy to rebuild. If a sukkah falls, it is easy to rebuild it because it is light and temporary.

While the permanent gives us stability and security, it also requires maintenance and much effort to restore things back to what they were in case of change or damage. The impermanent is much more flexible, and allows us to experience liberation from the pressure of maintenance and a sense of continuation through constant change.

From an individual perspective, some life events mark complete and finite loss, like the loss of a loved one, after which whatever we build would be new. On the other hand, life events such as an illness that requires change in our habits can be seen as a change that does not obliterate the old, but rather adds something new.

Clinging to the permanent can cause much pain that is entailed in the effort of building, the fear of destruction and the effort of rebuilding that entails a grain of loss. When we accept impermanence, this can allow us to experience the fall as temporary and to be compassionate in our fall and hopeful when we rebuild. In moments of grace we might also experience stability within constant change.

Happy Sukkot!

Feature photo: Portpatrick, Dunskey Castle, by Ben Wicks

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