On Sunday morning, I woke up feeling refreshed and energized, grateful that Yom Kippur was done.
“Okay, kids,” I said. “Let’s go outside. We need to build the sukkah today.”
My son Jeremy asked: “Why do we have to build a sukkah?”
“We need to build the sukkah so we can eat in it,” I said.
He then questioned: “Why do we have to eat in the sukkah when we have a whole house to eat in?”
Jeremy had a point. Sukkot is one of my favorite holidays, and it’s also one of the strangest. The holiday provokes lots of questions: why do we have to build a hut in the backyard, and then a week later, take it down?
His questions reminded me of one of my favorite stories which takes place on Sukkot.
A folktale is told about the biblical King Solomon, the builder of the First Temple, who was known for his wisdom, and who was often sad.
He turned to his most trusted servant, Benaiah and said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”
“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”
Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by an old merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.
“Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.
He watched the old merchant take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.
That night, the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.
“Well, my friend,” said Solomon. “Have you found what I sent you after?”
To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, ‘Here it is, your majesty!” The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which stood for Gam zeh ya’avor: This too shall pass.
This phrase could be a slogan for the holiday of Sukkot. The reason why we build a hut is to follow the commandment to dwell in a temporary structure (if the sukkah were left up all year, then it would no longer be Kosher.) Like the ring, the sukkah embodies the same message as the ring. The sukkah reminds us that our struggles are only temporary. It encourages us to hold onto the moments of joy just a little longer.
“When the people left Egypt to go to Israel they lived in huts. We build the sukkah to remember the people’s trip.” I told Jeremy.
“Okay,” he said, and we began building.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches biblical interpretation at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.