Rabbi Schwartz's Sukkot (5780) Sermon: Jonah's Sukkah
The following is a text version of Rabbi Steve Schwartz's sermon from the First Day of Sukkot (5780):
One of the more interesting, and at the same timeless familiar traditions of Sukkot is called Ushpizin. Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means guests, and the idea is that each night, when you sit in your sukkah, you invite a special guest to join you for dinner, traditionally a biblical figure. As the tradition has evolved over time, there is a specific guest you are supposed to invite each night – the first night is Abraham, for example. As you might expect, Isaac and Jacob, the other patriarchs, are also welcomed, as are Moses and Aaron, and Joseph and David. Essentially a who is who’s list of the great biblical figures. And then the spiritual presence of that guest is supposed to enhance your observance of the holiday that evening.
The tradition is not Jewish law, it is a custom. So people have felt free to play around with it over the years and to invite other guests. Women, for example, like Sarah or Rebecca from the Torah, or famous historical figures. Ever since Yom Kippur, I’ve been thinking there is one particular person that I would like to invite to the sukkah this year, a person whom I really feel could benefit from a visit to a sukkah – namely the prophet Jonah.
I’m sure you all remember Jonah, after all, we just read his story a few days ago on Yom Kippur afternoon, what we call Maftir Yonah. Jonah is a cantankerous character at best. If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, I am guessing many of you are familiar with the Odd Couple TV show from the 70s? The premise of the show was that two divorced friends decide to move in together, and they are very different people. Jack Klugman plays Oscar, a sportswriter who is a complete slob, and Tony Randall plays Felix Unger, a neat freak and a perfectionist who must have everything exactly the way he wants it to be. The Felix character? That is sort of like Jonah the prophet.
Jonah is argumentative, headstrong, critical, very particular, and also in his own way, a perfectionist. If something is going to be done, he wants it done his way, and if it isn’t done his way, he doesn’t have much interest in it. At the beginning of the book, he doesn’t think the mission that God assigns to him is worth his time, so he tries to flee from God by climbing on a ship and sailing away. When God finally forces him to go to Nineveh and pronounce a prophecy, he does so reluctantly and petulantly. Most prophets, once they start talking, they talk! But Jonah begrudgingly walks into Nineveh, and says precisely five words.
Then there is that curious story at the end of the book of Jonah. He is clearly disappointed that God decides to spare the city, almost like he feels God wasted his time. So he sulks off and sits down pouting, מקדם לעיר – on the east side of the city. And what does Jonah do there? ויעש לו שם סוכה – he makes for himself a sukkah. Remember that one of the rules for building a sukkah is it must have a roof made from material that comes from a living plant, and Jonah’s sukkah even has some sechach. It is that weird plant that God makes grow over Jonah’s head while he sits in his sukkah.
But if you build a sukkah yourself during the holiday, you know that there are inevitably problems with it. The wind might come up and blow the roof off. Rain might cause it to collapse. Inevitably in the course of the holiday, the sukkah requires repair, sometimes even complete rebuilding. And that is what happens with Jonah’s sukkah. That weird plant that God made for the sukkah’s roof, it dies. OK! It happens on Sukkot, it is part of the holiday. But Jonah becomes despondent! So much so that he actually says, “I don’t want to live anymore!” טוב מותי מחיי
I’ve always thought that is Jonah’s way of saying: “If things are not going to be the way I want them to be, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it! Leave me out!” Jonah’s failure is that he doesn’t learn the lesson that sitting in a sukkah is supposed to teach us, or at least one of the lessons. A sukkah, by definition, is imperfect. It has to be flimsy to be considered kosher. Its roof has to have holes in it. It is going to be dirty, a little bit uncomfortable, and crowded. At night it might be cold, in the day too hot. There are spiders and other creepy-crawly things in it. But the tradition says to us, in this place of imperfection, that is where you will find שמחה – that is where you will find joy.
I think that is an often overlooked message of Sukkot, but an important one, because the sukkah – with all of its imperfections, its challenges, its difficulties – is in a sense a microcosm of the world. When the tradition tells us we can find joy in the imperfection of a sukkah, what it is really doing is reminding us that we can find joy in our lives and in the world around us – even though neither – not our lives, not the world – is perfect. And that, I think, is precisely the lesson that Jonah fails to grasp.
Which is why I would like to invite him back to the sukkah this year, as one of the Ushpizin. To give him another chance to sit in a sukkah, and maybe this time to be able to set aside his need for control and perfection, and to learn to live – and live with joy – in a world that might not always meet his expectations.
May we all learn to do the same in our sukkot on this holiday, and beyond.