August 15, 2022 |

Temporary Housing

As I prepare for the holiday of Sukkot, and I prepare to tell managers & coworkers why I'm taking yet another two days off in the middle of the week, and then another two days a week later, I have been trying to come up with a good explanation for the thing I've been building in my backyard.

The classical translation of sukkah is "hut", but I'm not sure that does it justice -- my association with the word hut is a thatched structure somewhere in Africa, but a sukkah is different. So we can fall back on the verse in the Torah:

"Every citizen in Israel should dwell in 'sukkot', in order that your descendents know that it was in 'sukkot' that I [God] 'hoshavti' the Israelites as I took them out of Egypt".

'Sukkot' we'll get back to momentarily.

Hoshavti is a causative form of "y-sh-v", almost as if you could "dwell" someone as a transitive verb. The Israelites didn't just live in sukkot on their way out of Egypt -- God Himself stuck them in sukkot for the duration of their 40-year journey.

So where was it that God dwelled the Israelites? Maybe we can think of sukkot as "temporary housing", which is a term that has much more current usage than "huts". Victims of natural disasters (acts of God, as it were), are put in temporary housing until FEMA can get its act together. New immigrants to Israel live in temporary housing until they find a more permanent place to settle. Displaced Palestinians have been put in temporary housing in the aftermath of the various Arab-Israeli wars.

Sometimes temporary housing is just that: temporary. When you leave your house for a period of time, you expect and hope to return, or to move on to the next house, but you never quite settle there. Other times, temporary housing is much more permanent. An old family story recounts how my great-grandparents came to Philadelphia from Israel for a visit and stayed 35 years. I wonder if every Sukkot, they would leave their house in Philadelphia and wonder if, after Shmini Atzeret, they were leaving one sukkah to move back into another.

My personal association with temporary housing involves every apartment I lived in from when I started college until my wife and I bought our first home. I would move in, maybe buy some furniture, put up some posters, but be careful not to scuff the walls too much, or buy things that were too fine-tuned to that particular apartment, since a year later it could all change.

If that's the case, perhaps one can see all of the Exodus as one larger metaphor for adolescence and all that comes between when a teenager leaves the house and when they start their own home. We should then not be surprised that the Israelites were rebellious against God, or that they demanded free food and drink like they had when they were living "at home". When their "parent" disappears for 40 days for a meeting, how long does it take for start partying?

It is worth noting at this point that not all the tribes chose to "grow up", and "create their own home" by entering the Promised Land. The tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menasseh decided to stay in Never Never Land and did not cross the Jordan -- they found their destiny in the fertile fields that lay beyond the teenage wasteland, but before the land of Israel. Perhaps they suspected that while their brothers & sisters might find bliss and rewards beyond their imagination across the Jordan, there were also difficulties and struggles that awaited them as they adapted to their new reality. They were the vocal minority who chose a different path, who made their sukkah their home. In allowing them to stay, God validates their choice as well.

So in order to remember how our ancestors lived during their transition, we engage in imitatio dei and move ourselves into temporary housing. Some of us might feel jarred from our routine; others might surprise themselves and feel more at home.

Next week we move into temporary housing. If and when you move back is entirely up to you.


Jack Kustanowitz

Joined: July 15, 2007

Jack is an Internet professional living in Silver Spring, MD. He is a proud alum of the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ as well as Boston University, where he was active at BU Hillel.

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