By Larry Gordon
What are we going to do? It seems that it is always either too early or too late, too warm or too cold. And despite these conundrums, we continue to search for that perfect season and those most excellent and joyous days without being discouraged.
Who can forget last year’s yamim tovim, beginning with Rosh Hashanah falling out two days after Labor Day? It was still summer, and the air conditioning was still working overtime; the bees and wasps were excited about an early Sukkos. Except for those honey traps planted on the outside of some sukkahs, if you were one of those creatures and able to evade the trap, you had it made in the shade of a beautifully bedecked table with an uncovered honey dish somewhere amidst all the glass and silverware.
But not this year. This week, aside from setting up our lulavim and esrogim, preparing for another three-day marathon, we are also eyeing the location of our favorite sweaters to help us enjoy the nippy nighttime air that will most likely be the hallmark of the coming chag. The not-so-long-range forecast says that so far the weather will be somewhat cooperative—that is, here on the East Coast. Frankly it doesn’t really matter how cool or warm it is; our concern when perusing these weather charts is to watch out for the “R” word; we do not want any rain, which has happened many times in the past and has a tendency of upsetting the apple-and-honey cart.
But then again, upon reflection, after a few months of some really nice summer weather we may just be ready for a few midday cool breezes and perhaps a dip close to the 40s at night for a change.
As of Monday, forecasts for our part of New York reported a 60% chance of rain (possibly with thunder) in the morning on erev yom tov, clear skies in the afternoon, and the next few days—the all-important Diaspora trifecta (the second in a series of three)—being sunny on Thursday, having a 60% chance of rain on Friday, and mostly cloudy skies on Shabbos (with just a 20% chance of rain). It will be in the 50s at night and the 60s during the day. So as these words are being written, I can report that we are not going to freeze, but we might have to deal with some wet weather, which is very un-Sukkos-like.
Of course that can still change. All we need is a Canadian high to swoop down on us or an Atlantic wind to blow the clouds away and then we will be good to go (or to sit). In Jerusalem, the weather will be spectacular. If you took this issue of the paper with you to Israel or you are reading it online, take a look outside—it’s sunny and beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. If it’s at night, there are plenty of stars punctuating the night sky.
Back here in New York, memories of hot, cold, and challenging rainy Sukkos holidays are in abundance. One vivid memory takes me back to Brooklyn in the early years, probably after being married less than a decade, with a few little kids: Our sukkah in the backyard, in-laws our guests for the first days, and a monsoon outside. In my humble opinion, it is clear that the first night of yom tov is a washout, with all its ramifications. You know, as the Talmud says, like a servant pouring a pitcher of water over the head of his master. We step into the sukkah to survey the situation. To me it looks like the Maid of the Mist, that intense boat ride that takes you as close as possible to the Niagara Falls.
To me, it looks like we cannot even make Kiddush in the sukkah because there is such a downpour. But we are not giving up. We decide to wait an hour. Restlessness begins to set in. Forty-five minutes later we step outside again. The sukkah is soaked and the rain is still coming down. It looks like it is safe to declare the night a rainout and set the table inside. My father-in-law says no, we have to wait some more. The kids want to hear Kiddush and want to eat and, by the way, the adults want the same thing.
This went on for a while. Let’s just say that the next morning I heard that my father-in-law finally made Kiddush in the sukkah at 1 a.m. with the rain somewhat lighter but still coming down. The next day was sunny and warm. There’s nothing like the sun coming out to dry a soggy sukkah, righting all that seems to be going wrong.
There is a singular memory that comes to mind that involves winter coats and ski masks in the sukkah. It was a long time ago, and I do not recall anything similar since. We were kids back at home on Montgomery Street in Crown Heights. It must have been on the last days when our minhag is—or was—to still use the sukkah for two meals. Sukkos must have fallen out, not unlike this year, during the meteorologically unpredictable mid-October or thereabout.
Our sukkah was on our front porch and there was a wide window in our living room that led right into the sukkah. It seemed to us, the children, that the simplest, most convenient thing to do was to walk from the kitchen to that window, pass the food over to one of our siblings, and then follow the food by stepping right through the window into the sukkah. The only glitch was that neither my mother nor my father liked the plan.
First, my mom did not like us carrying soup and gravy-laden main courses through the living room, which might result in something being spilled on the new light-colored carpet or one of the chairs or couches nearby. My father didn’t like the whole idea because he thought that civilized human beings should walk through a door and not through windows. We took that as a high compliment, but still liked jumping through the window every now and then just for the fun of it.
But yes, back to that freezing-cold Sukkos. All I remember is wearing a winter coat and a scarf, and a ski mask too. I recall being restless waiting for the steaming hot soup to be served so that we could be warmed somewhat, if only for a few moments. With each spoonful of hot, delicious chicken soup, I had to lift my ski mask to get the spoon into my mouth. It was a funny scene that we laughed about for a while.
For one Sukkos here in the Five Towns, I recall buying a heater or two for the sukkah, but it just was not the right kind. If you sat too close to the heater you were way too warm; if you sat a few feet away you were freezing cold. Then you have to watch the heaters and make sure they don’t tip over and chas v’shalom start a fire. So unless the sukkah is part of your house, go with a good sweater and perhaps a down jacket, or maybe a fur, if it’s cold outside.
Then there were the impossibly hot yamim tovim. It probably exists in Israel or maybe Miami Beach, but I have not seen air conditioning in sukkahs here. Also, an extremely hot day on Sukkos is nowhere near as unnerving or uncomfortable as a very cold one. I have not heard of anyone here invoking the exemption from eating in the sukkah because of extreme discomfort under the dictate that a person is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah if he experiences extreme discomfort.
While the weather is important, what is vital is the message of the fact that we transport ourselves out of our homes and apartments and onto our porches, backyards, and driveways as a way of displaying the extent of our faith and trust in Hashem. In a way, it is an imbalanced relationship. This is a sentiment we expressed several times during the course of the just-elapsed Yom Kippur day. It’s something to contemplate if you are drawn to consider that we are on an even playing field, so to speak, with Him. Amongst the sentiments espoused was this one: “We are brazen, but You are compassionate and gracious; we are obstinate, but You are slow to anger; we are filled with iniquity, but You are filled with mercy; our days are like a fleeting shadow, but You are eternal and Your years never end.”
The sukkah communicates to us the fact that He will not only protect us from the elements of weather over the chag but from all varieties of harm, misfortune, and potential danger in the course of the coming year. Sukkos is not the season of our rejoicing only because of the hopefully positive judgment we received over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also an expression of confidence in Hashem and a trust that is, we hope, mutual. Chag sameach. v
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By Larry Gordon