By Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner
These are tough times for everyone. Only two weeks ago, we recited “who shall live and who shall die.” This year we really feel our vulnerability to those awful propositions: “Who shall live and who shall die” and “who by fire” in the West, “who by storm and water” in our South and “who by pandemic” in all 50 states.
In this time of COVID-19, this liturgy asks us to examine our lives, just as it often can cause depression, anxiety for the future and uncertainty for our future.
Why then is Sukkot so problematic? We began with Rosh Hashanah, defined in our liturgy as a “Day of Remembrance” and then Yom Kippur labeled as a “Day of Judgment.” But Sukkot is called zeman simchateinu, a “Day of Joy.”
To be honest, how joyful do we all feel right now, hunkering down at home, afraid — or at least cautious — about doing anything in a public setting? Other than joyful gratitude for survival in a pandemic, we are still apprehensive about the future. We have already lost 200,000 American lives.
Why should we be so joyful now, virtually locked out of the synagogue for Sukkot? How can we regain peace of mind or emotional equilibrium when too many Americans refuse to agree to the minimal disciplines of masking, social distancing and washing our hands just to avoid losing our lives?
We all feel this need for delivery from our loneliness and the rigor of medically directed separation from others.
How does Sukkot follow with any promise of relief? How can we focus on the now and find moments of joy and positive peace of mind in Sukkot?
In short, when one is unhappy, even depressed — how can we lift up our spirits and relieve our apprehension about tomorrow and the days to come? Is there a path away from the uncertainty about the future and to find our way back to optimism and confidence?
My suggestion is to find renewed enthusiasm for life in a “nachas box.” Create a nachas box — a repository for cards, notes, emails and expressions of gratitude we receive for what we have done for others. An additional definition includes pride for our children and for others, and what they have achieved.
Creating a nachas box was a suggestion from a colleague decades ago. He said there will be days when you will be challenged for your decisions and choices — anxious and depressed perhaps. At that moment, take out your nachas box and review the notes and letters you received describing the impact you had in their lives. It will not take long. You will be uplifted.
I created my nachas box decades ago. Well, really, it was a large file folder, and then a second file. Today, you might create it digitally. But the impact will be the same: You open it up, read and smile, recalling the moment, the people and the memories. You are worthwhile; you are meaningful in the lives of friends and family.
How then does this relate to Sukkot? I must be personal: Our sukkah is also a nachas box, which renews my feelings of pride, meaning and hope.
As a family, before there were children, my wife Barbara and I built a sukkah. Two were memorable and we talked about our first experiments. We built one for the High Holidays in Great Neck and brought out Rabbi Mordecai Waxman to appreciate it. With me was the committee youth chairman, and together we watched the vertical cube slowly become a parallelogram with decreasing internal angles until it was a pile of two-by-fours on the ground. We had designed the first self-folding sukkah, and the chairman went on to become an architect in San Francisco.
Our first home sukkah was so strong and remained vertical that it survived snowstorms into the winter. This leads to a question: What is the name of the day on which the Sukkah is taken down? Chanukah.
Over the years, our children helped decorate the sukkah, and we still put up their creations — except for those we gifted to them. We also remember the decorations we no longer can use. There was a year when, to surprise Barbara, who complained about the weather, I installed a window in one wall with a sliding storm panel that could be closed.
I bought a chandelier with candle-like bulbs, and when she came into the sukkah, I hit the switch. Unfortunately, weather and years took their toll, and we just remember the surprise moment and laughter.
In recent years, we even had high school students from Cheltenham High School come to our sukkah to eat their lunch. Not this year.
The annual purchase of a lulav and etrog set led to holding on to one of the etrogim; drying it and saving it marked with the Hebrew year, while the other etrogim we purchased were turned into etrog liqueur which we could serve to sukkah guests. Since I made it with potato vodka, it was also kosher for Passover, linking our holidays.
You get it now. Sukkot for the Lerner family is a living, breathing nachas box, and it offers us joy and happiness in moments recalled from the past 55 years.
The nachas memories remind you to forget that you have been productive, a positive force in the lives of congregants, community and family. Above all, you are grateful for the kindness of others who took the time and effort to express their gratitude to you.
And Sukkot is a natural, annual nachas box. One can sit in the sukkah as a moment of balancing the past as an antidote for worry about the future.
To conclude, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom wrote: “Happiness is an attitude to life, while joy lives in the moment. Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to God. It comes from a different realm than happiness. It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others.”
This year we may be at home. Find joy in Sukkot this year as the beginning of your nachas box. We can really say: Chag Sameach and next year in your own sukkah. l
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner is the editor and president of JewishFreeware.org and president and rav hamakhshir of Traditional Kosher Supervision LLC. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.