Children often think that the best things are those with the most impressive attributes– from buildings to animals, they look for the strongest or the tallest or the fastest.
But as we learn from our experiences, we realize that adaptability is far more valuable than inelastic specialization. Man is not the largest, fastest, or strongest animal on earth. But we clearly are the most adaptable, capable of living in the widest range of conditions, from the arctic to the tropics, desert to rain forest.
Early builders used to construct buildings that were big and strong. And then, over time, they learned (and are still learning) how to build things that are flexible, that can move when the earth does, or when the wind blows.
This general principle is remarkably versatile, and it applies to cultures and faiths and ethnicities as well as to structures. And sometimes the structure itself is a metaphor for an entire people.
A sukkah is a temporary hut, built for an 8 day festival that comes after Yom Kippur (you can see images here). A sukkah is, itself, by definition a temporary structure, and so it is constructed quite poorly.
(Years ago, when I lived in London, our Sukkah would invariably be crippled at the end of the festival by one of the impressive wind storms that batter the British Isles from time-to-time, and which were particularly effective against small thatched structures on the 4th-story porch of an apartment. My five year-old son once earnestly explained to his parents that the reason the festival was only seven days long was because on the eighth day, the Sukkah would blow down. )
Jews have been building sukkahs wherever they live for thousands of years – the commandment is found in the Torah, and we have a highly developed code of laws that define what is (and is not) acceptable as a sukkah.
Sukkahs are also highly individualistic. They come in a vast range of shapes and sizes, with seemingly-infinite customization, all within the letter and spirit of the Law. In this, Sukkahs reflect the personal preferences and aesthetics of their makers. Each family makes our own Sukkahs, as a proxy for the way in which we choose to beautify the commandment and our relationship with Hashem.
And yet, these buildings are fragile. They cannot stand up to nature, or much (if any) external abuse, because (as required by Jewish Law) their roofs can offer little or no integral resistance to the forces around them.
So, too, the Jewish people. Outside of Israel, Jews have not effectively defended themselves in thousands of years. We seemingly have no real resistance to anti-semitism, the forces of assimilation, the allures of our host countries and cultures. And still, every year, we, like our sukkahs, stand up once again. We keep coming back.
This is by way of very strong contrast to a house – a house is something that is hard to build, and should last much longer than a sukkah. And it does – but not over the long run. We built two great houses for G-d, in the two Temples of Jerusalem. Though they lasted for hundreds of years, and used stones that weighed as much as 80 tons, the Temples were destroyed. They were bludgeoned and burned and plowed over and even, under the current Arab administration of the Temple Mount, dug out from under and dumped into landfills.
The great and holy temples are no more. What man creates, man can destroy. But Judaism is not contained in its edifices, rather in its people and in the Torah. The ideas of Judaism, unlike our buildings, are not the creation of mere mortals. So, like the Sukkahs that spring up every year all over the world wherever Jews live, the ideas and principles of the Torah continue to spring back.
When we rely on buildings, we decay. When we connect with living and dynamic ideas, then we remain capable of creative thought and growth. Judaism has certainly changed and adapted, but it has always sought to do so while remaining within the letter of the law. Like our Sukkahs, we certainly bend and flex and sometimes blow completely over. But we’ll keep rebuilding our sukkahs every year, once again demonstrating our belief that it is each person’s personal connection with G-d, as fragile and mortal as it is, that matters above all. The hardiest institutions are not made of bricks-and-mortar; they are made of our constantly renewed love and service.