There is a classic scene in the 1995 crime/drama Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. De Niro plays a big time thief and Pacino is the cop that is assigned to catch him. After circling each other and trying to out maneuver each other, the two finally appear in a scene together about two hours into the movie. The two end up meeting in a coffee shop so that they can size each other up before De Niro attempts his big score. Pacino tries to convince De Niro that he should walk away from this life of crime and that he should try living a normal life. De Niro then answers by saying, “A guy told me one time, ‘Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.’” Pacino asks De Niro if he would be able to walk away from his girlfriend. De Niro replies, “That’s the discipline.” While I am not suggesting to anyone to adopt a vagabond lifestyle or encouraging anyone to become an off-the-grid crime figure, I do think this is a time of year to think about what we cherish, what we are attached to, and what we can do without.
In our Rabbinic and Halakhic tradition, there is an unresolved debate. Is the Sukkah that we dwell in during Sukkot supposed to be a temporary dwelling/דירת עראי or a permanent one/דירת קבע? How thick should the walls be? How high should the walls be? Should rain be able to get in through the roof/סכך? How much of my body and table should be in the Sukkah while I eat? These are all questions that circle around this question about the essence of our Sukkah.
The Sfas Emes comes to teach us that in fact, the Sukkah was meant not to be either temporary or permanent, but rather, the Sukkah was intended to be both. He teaches that one needs to understand that this temporary dwelling is what expresses that which is fixed-the divinity which is in all places. This temporary dwelling is more fixed that any of the fixed places in the world, because it orients us to the fact that God is what is truly fixed in all places. The Torah tells us that “you shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt/בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.” The Sfas Emes reminds us that the reason that we were brought out of Egypt was to be a free people/בני חורין. And being free means realizing that our souls are not bound to anything material. What is permanent is our relationship and connection with God, and we are reminded of that when we step into the seemingly impermanent Sukkah.
It is good to want and own nice things. But Sukkot reminds us not to become too attached to any one thing. That attachment to the material becomes shackling. And the Sukkah offers us the potential to go out into another realm. If we are to be a free people, this week, I challenge us to go out from our places of material comfort, with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all our might. And there, I hope we can find our true and permanent comfort in the shade of God’s House, the Sukkah.
Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’Simha,
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.