The twelve-hour drive from Toronto for our annual Succot visit with my grandparents left me bruised, battered, and drained by all the fights my sister began with me. (I, of course, never started a fight.) We arrived in 1968, post riots Baltimore. Although I did not see burned out cars on my grandparents’ block, things were obviously different. There were no children playing on the street. There were bars on the windows of all the homes. |
My first direct experience with the new realities was when I wanted to cross the gravel path that separated my grandparents’ backyard from the Yeshiva grounds. My grandmother warned that it wasn’t safe to walk alone. I was determined to show that I was not scared and I ran out of the house.
A group of teenagers stopped me on the path, but, thank God, just at that moment my giant cousin Sheftel, (now Rav Sheftel Neuberger, the Menahel of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel) was walking toward us and the kids ran. I made it to the Yeshiva.
Unfortunately, I had to eventually return to the house. I waited for my grandfather so I could walk home with him, although I wondered what my, in my mind, ancient, and nearly blind, grandfather could possibly do to protect me. There was nothing to fear. The neighborhood kids were in awe of the great Rabbi and wouldn’t dare come near us.
The man, who had always been a super-hero of Torah and righteousness, now became as great as Superman in my mind. So, despite the new dangers, I didn’t hesitate to sleep in the Succah; my grandfather’s presence would protect me.
Perhaps my grandmother was slightly upset that I had ignored her warnings about the path. She didn’t want her husband to sleep in the Succah because he had a cold. I guess even super-heroes must obey their wives. I would have to sleep alone in the Succah.
Don’t believe the comic books: Super powers are not automatically passed down to the next generation. I knew that, as I was not a Tzaddik – please see “Why I’m Not A Tzaddik” for the explanation – and would not be safe without my grandfather at my side.
My sister, the one determined that I would never be a Tzaddik, commented in her sweetest voice (which was not very sweet at all, if you ask me): “So you feel safer with Zaidy than you do with Hashem. I told you that you would never be a Tzaddik.” I had to sleep in the Succah, placing all my trust in God. I was hoping that my dear, beloved grandmother, who was so concerned for my safety, would prohibit me from sleeping alone, and that I, the future Tzaddik, would have to obey as I (almost) always did. No way! She looked at me with a strange smile and offered to gather the blankets and pillows I needed for my big Mitzvah.
It was a wonderful experience. I walked into the Succah and felt completely safe. I actually felt safer in the Succah than I did in the house! Perhaps there really was hope that I could become a Tzaddik. I slept like a baby, caught a cold, and was forced to sleep inside the rest of Succot.
I still feel safe in my succah. My home in Saratoga Springs bordered on the training track for the harness horses, a very unsafe place. The racetrack workers intimidated even the local police. No matter, because I felt perfectly safe in my Succah, although I did wake up with ice in my beard. My Succah on West End Ave. in New York City was behind my building. It was pre-Guliani and unsafe, and many people considered me crazy for sleeping outside, but, again, I felt perfectly safe and secure.
The roof is incompletely covered with S’chach, there are open spaces through which we can see the stars. The Succah provides both light and shade. It reflects the fluctuations in our relationship with God. There are times we “see” God’s Presence with clarity, and there are times when we experience God as hidden. We can sense God’s protection some of the time, and at others we feel more vulnerable. People often feel that a relationship that fluctuates is unstable and insecure. Yet, for me, the place I feel most safe is in the Succah, the very place that reflects the highs and lows in my relationship with God. After Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I know that despite the times when I experience God as hidden, that I will once again find the light. Yes, there are times when I feel vulnerable, but I know that the protection will return. It is a relationship with ups and downs as every relationship. It is a relationship in which I can feel secure. Perhaps that is why there is no place where I feel as safe as when I am in my Succah.
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