Originally published September, 2002. Republished September 25, 2012.
This article is reprinted with permission of JTA. For more information about JTA, the Global News Service of the Jewish People, visit www.jta.org.
New York (JTA) — There are two ritual acts at the end of Yom Kippur that transform feelings of guilt, loss and despair into hope. The first requires a ram's horn. The final blast of the shofar, declaring the unity and transcendent power of God, is a moment of heavenly and earthly elation. The second ritual act requires a hammer.
Hammering the first nail into the frame of the sukkah (wooden hut), according to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, is a spiritual path to fulfill the psalmist's words, "They go from strength to strength" (Psalm 84:4). In this act we are reminded that as deep in thought and repentance as we were during Yom Kippur, we should be rejoicing and celebrating on Sukkot. As the full moon comes around, our weeping turns to laughter.
But there is more than an emotive shift between Yom Kippur and Sukkot — there is a shift of focus from the mind to the body as well. This shift can be seen most directly in the way that we take hold of the lulav and etrog and shake, but I would like to suggest that it is in taking hold of the hammer that the true spiritual work is completed.
I was raised, as many other Jewish men, to think of my mind as the body part that would propel me to success in this world. While other kids on my quiet block in Charlotte, N.C., were busy helping Dad build shelves or do an oil change, my Dad and I played chess, debated philosophy and had an occasional game of ping pong. We were not good with our hands, or so said the neighbors.
One of the great tales that the authentic southerners told on my block was of the day my grandfather came to visit from Brooklyn. My father, eager to show off how he had acclimated to country life, brought out the family lawnmower and cranked it up. My grandfather was so amazed that he insisted on having a turn with this wonder machine. In a three-piece suit and hat he marched across the lawn.
I recall this tale to pose a question: Can you imagine the shock when our neighbors watched us intellectual Jewish folk each fall, as my father and I would drag plywood, two by fours, old doors and burlap out of the basement to build a sukkah in our backyard?
My father's secret was nailing one side of the sukkah to the porch. He'd drive nice four inch nails into the porch posts each year to support the frame, then we'd hammer on the sides, throw some pine branches on top, hang gourds from the roof and carry down the kitchen table. It was our own make-shift harvest hut, a reminder of a rest stop that our ancestors once took on their way out of Egypt. In a family that spent much more time sitting inside and reading books than being outside, Sukkot reconnected us to the natural world — and to the joy of both craft and creation.
One time a neighbor asked, "When are y'all gonna finish that shed?" But more often then not our little backyard sukkah was an opportunity for our Christian neighbors to see a biblical verse in action. Each Sukkot, I read the words: You shall live in sukkot seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt (Leviticus 23:42-43).
When I read of these words concerning the sukkah, I often think of another passage from Torah which describe the mishkan, the sacred tent: I have singled out Bezalel . . . I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge of every craft... and I have also granted this art to all who are skillful, so that they may make everything that I have instructed you (Exodus 31:1-3, 6).
I may not have knowledge of every craft, but my experience in helping my father build a sukkah each year taught me to value craft and to celebrate the work of my hands. But beyond the functional aspect of building a sukkah, the value of craft is spiritual wisdom. The building of the sukkah is a metaphor for creating a new world. It is a world more in tune with natural rhythms and more open to the heavens. It is a world where we invite in ancestral spirits, neighbors and friends. For one week, in a fragile world made by two by fours and branches, we envision a more secure world and