Why We Build Something That We Know We’ll Take Down

Yom Kippur is an exhausting day. By the end of the day, we’re tired, we’re hungry, and we’re just ready to be done. But traditionally, even if you’re exhausted, there’s a mitzvah to fulfill the next day: on the day after Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to build your sukkah.

What’s fascinating is that the day after Yom Kippur was also seen as the first day of building for the two most important structures in Jewish history

the
mishkan
 (home for the Ark of the Covenant), and the First Temple in Jerusalem.

And these three structures

a sukkah, the mishkan, and the Temple

reflect three different levels of permanence.

Solomon's TempleThe ancient Temple in Jerusalem was awe-inducing. It was at the top of a mountain in Jerusalem, and for most people, it would take days or weeks to travel there. It was a mob scene, with thousands and thousands and thousands of people in one location. If you went there, you would have thought that it would last forever.

Except it didn’t. The Temple was destroyed. Twice. The permanence was an illusion.

In our lives, too, we often look for stability, because it gives us reassurance. But we also know that our lives can change in a flash. Whether it’s our health, our finances, or our relationships, even if we think things will be there forever, we know that the vagaries of life and chance have their say, too. So yes, when we find a sense of security it can be comforting, but we also know that we can’t rely on it – too many things can happen.

Ark of the CovenantThe mishkan, in contrast, was the ultimate in portability. It was intentionally designed to get dismantled and rebuilt at every spot along the Israelites’ wanderings. Its impermanence was its defining feature, and a reminder that God could live anywhere.

And because the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t rooted down in one place, it became more than just a physical home for God; it was a spiritual home, as well.

The Torah says that when the mishkan was finished, God proclaimed, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in their midst (b’tocham).” The Hebrew word “b’tocham” certainly means “in their midst,” but it also can mean “in them.” So it could read, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell inside the people’s hearts.”

It’s like the story of the young man who wanted to be a rabbi. He told his rabbi, “I have gone through the Torah over twenty times.” “Ah,” said the rabbi. “That’s wonderful. But how many times has the Torah been through you?”

Our greatest treasures are not the things we physically own, but the values that guide us. Remembering what we stand for, who we want to be, and how we want to live allows us to deal more easily with the ups and downs of life.

Building a sukkahThe sukkah lies in between the Temple and the mishkan in that it is “semi-permanent.” It comes up for a week, and then goes down. It has a roof, but you have to be able to see the sky. It has walls, but not four of them, ensuring that our tent is wide open.

So with its sense of semi-permanence, the sukkah reminds us that even though that nothing lasts forever, we still need to build. Why? Because Judaism strives to create more blessings and justice and peace, and those things don’t happen by accident. They happen when we ourselves create them.

Will we be guaranteed success? No. Will they last forever? No. But for as long as they remain, we embrace them, we celebrate them, and we work to make more of them.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote last week, “Shelter and beauty and life are fragile, and to be joyously cherished.”

In the end, we should build our lives the way we build our sukkah

remembering that we are not eternal, but that while we are here, we have opportunities and responsibilities to embrace while they are ours to have.

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