It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I’m sitting out on my lawn, inside a flimsy, rectangular structure I assembled last week with the help of some friends. At 6 by 10 feet, my hut is significantly smaller than the house that Thoreau built. My structure’s frame is made of one-inch PVC piping. For walls, I used plastic shower curtains. These “walls” hang from the white plastic pipes by, yes, shower-curtain rings.
One shower curtain is printed with a bright-green, close-up photograph of grass. This curtain is my favorite; I love its whimsical look, and it reminds me of my first apartment, which had wall-to-wall green carpeting and a bathroom of cracked, pale-green tiles. Another shower-curtain wall is more of an olive green, with a texture that seems to repel duct tape no matter how I try. Sections of clear or translucent shower-curtain liners make up the rest of the walls. There’s a doorway but no door.
Ah, now there’s a little breeze, thank Gd. Just as Thoreau enjoyed having wind blow through his cabin, I appreciate it on a sunny day in late September. However, Thoreau’s main goal was to remain close to nature, resisting plastering his chimney even until deepest frigid November, whereas in my case I’m just boiling hot in here, inside my little plastic house; a bit more air flow would definitely be a good thing.
But I’m not complaining. Rather, I’m celebrating Sukkot, known in English as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Festival of Booths.” Sukkot is a week-long autumnal Jewish holiday, which is based on a few verses in Leviticus1, instructing us to “dwell in sukkot” from the 15th to the 22nd of the month of Tishrei. My shelter, my little booth, is called a sukkah (the singular of sukkot), and it is my home for the duration of the holiday. “Dwelling” in the sukkah means taking all my meals here, inviting guests, as well as doing all my teaching, reading, and writing in the sukkah, which has Wifi. The commandment “You shall dwell in sukkot,” means, in other words, one must conduct all one’s activities of the day there. Many people even sleep in their sukkot.
I’ve decorated my sukkah with pictures duct-taped to the walls, paper chains and drawings by my friends’ children, and produce from local harvests (pumpkins, tomatoes, mums). There’s space for a small table and a few folding chairs, plus a box of “sukkah supplies,” containing extra plates, cups, napkins, candles, prayer books, and other trappings for a week of celebration. My sukkah is quite festive, especially at night, when it’s illuminated by electric sukkah lights (known as “Christmas lights” to some), which twinkle and shine all around the top perimeter of my hut and the edges of its doorway.
Most importantly, the roof of my sukkah is made of skhakh, which can be any all-natural material, such as branches, palm fronds, reeds, or bamboo. Looking up through the skhakh it should be possible to see the moon and stars, or clouds, or blazing sun, or rain, or snow. Whatever the weather, it comes down through the roof of a proper sukkah. Thoreau would have liked it; he might even have recognized his ideal, hypaethral (open to the sky) house, with roof open to the heavens as he wished our minds could be open to “Higher Laws.”
Thoreau would also have appreciated the themes of Sukkot. Spending time in the sukkah is meant to teach us about the temporal nature and ephemerality of the material world. A properly built sukkah is flimsy, frail, and impermanent, just like our lives. Duct tape doesn’t hold forever. A Nor’easter easily takes down my sukkah. We are dust, after all, and our days are as the grass2.
Recognizing this fact leads often to tears; but after tears comes joy — and this is the main message of Sukkot. As it is written in Ecclesiastes, which we study on Sukkot, “Everything has its own season and its moment in time… a moment to be born, and a moment to die… a moment for lament, and a moment for dancing.” Recognizing the appropriate season for each thing is our challenge; when we rise to this challenge, we’re rewarded with a life lived in the present moment.
“We should be blessed if we lived in the present always,” writes Thoreau in Walden3, “and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” This is the Thoreau that always leads me back to Ecclesiastes and Sukkot. Taking “advantage of every accident” is like accepting all things in their seasons, whether lament or dancing. If we were as blessed as grass, we would “confess” to sadness, “confess” to joy. If we lived in the present, we might be “influenced” by dew.
Living moment-to-moment does not come easily to most people. This is why we have to go dwell in a sukkah for a week every year, to be reminded that all we have is time, not stuff, and time is only a series of present moments. Therefore, according to both Walden and Ecclesiastes, we might as well be happy. In fact, another Biblical name for the Sukkot holiday is “Season of Our Joy.” And in case that’s still not enough, we are Biblically commanded to be “only joyful” for the duration of Sukkot — to be as blessed and present as Thoreau’s dewy grass.
Two weeks before Sukkot, there was Rosh haShanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur. Although the upshot of both these holidays is happy — beginning a new year with a fresh slate, enjoying a renewed lease on life — their observance involves plenty of reflection on the past, which is revealed in their very names: Rosh haShanah (literally “the head of the year”) is also called “the Day of Remembrance,” and Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.”
These are holidays that, I’m sure, Thoreau would not have liked as much as Sukkot. Having presented his appealing vision — of living life like a blade of grass, noticing every tiny drop of dew — he immediately switches gears, to criticize people’s focus on the past. We waste too much precious time, he says, “in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities.” If only we had paid attention, I think he means, we could have used our time well. “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl.); the dew has always bent the grass. Thoreau takes his criticism one step further, to denigrate a typical rationale for living outside the present: We excuse ourselves for living in the past, he says, when we call it “our duty” to atone that way.
Now that he’s got me, I realize that, in fact, I have noticed the dew during these holiday weeks, albeit obliquely. When I first headed out to the yard with a bag of PVC pipes, following tradition to start building my sukkah on the morning after Yom Kippur, the lawn was wet and slippery with dew, which dampened my shoes, threatened the stability of my ladder, and reawakened an old knee injury. When I came out to the sukkah this morning to set up for a holiday breakfast, I wiped away dew clinging to metal folding chairs left outside overnight. It’s been dew, dew, dew, yet I’ve hardly given its “influence” a thought. Eureka! Maybe tomorrow I’ll go out early with my camera and take a close-up photograph of a drop of dew on a blade of grass. I’ll catch the Golden Hour after sunrise, it will be great. Tomorrow, tomorrow.
1. Leviticus 39:42-43
2. Psalm 103:14-15
3. “We should be blessed as if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.” (Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, 1854)