Southern Hospitality

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29 Jun 2006

This is a story about Jews who lived in the “Old South,” in the United States, in the early part of the twentieth century, amongst non-Jews who, oddly enough, didn’t appreciate their presence. One night in early October, some members of the Town Council: Hobbs, Thomson and Wilson, the Butcher, Baker and Undertaker, noticed that the Jews were putting up a structure in the back of their synagogue.

Wilson, the Undertaker, spoke up, “These boys have their nerve. First of all, we let ’em live with us. An’ we get mighty little business ourselves from the bunch of ’em. They can’t jes build whenever they wanto. I say, ‘Let’s haul ’em into court. We’ll see how long their buildin’ stands!”

The Rabbi and the President were brought before the Court of Judge Lawton, not himself a great friend of the Jews. The President couldn’t think of anything to say. But the Rabbi, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “Judge, we realize we made a mistake. Just give us ten days, then send over the Town Inspector, and the new building will be gone.”

The Judge, not knowing what to believe, said, “Alright, Rabbi, I’ll do what you said. But if my inspector tells me that you’ve still got something new over there, I’m going to haul you and your President in handcuffs into jail!”

Of course, it was “Sukkot,” and the “Sukkah,” which was the new building, wasn’t needed for even ten days. So that, when the inspector arrived with two sets of handcuffs at the ready, he was dumbfounded, and could not understand what he was not seeing, and had to return to the Judge with his disappointing report.

The point of the story is somewhat humorous, in that it shows how a Jewish leader outwitted the enemies of his community. But it is also somewhat sad, because “Sukkot” is specifically That Holiday in which the Jewish People reach out to the world, to include them in our prayers and in our rejoicing.

It is also poignant, in that it illustrates one of the themes of Sukkot, paradoxical against the basic nature of the Holiday as the “Time of our Rejoicing.” That theme is captured by “Megilat Kohelet,” which is read on Shabbat “Chol HaMoed Sukkot,” the Shabbat of the Intermediate Days of “Sukkot.” It is the theme of the temporary-ness of life, that Man has really such a short time to accomplish his lofty goals, but also that if he tries, Hashem will help him.

The Essence of the “Sukkah”

The essence of a “Sukkah” is that it be a “temporary” structure, because that conveys the idea of our dependence on G-d’s constant protection. The basic element of the Sukkah is the covering, the “Sechach,” which protects us from the elements (rain, snow (it’s happened on several occasions!)). The walls are of less importance, from the point of view of Jewish Law (perhaps not from the point of view of those sitting inside), as long as the structure is capable of standing in an “average” wind.

The Sukkah doesn’t have to be as strong as Fort Knox, and indeed probably should not be so strong, because that would violate the spirit of “temporary”-ness which is the essence of the Sukkah.