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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Catching Our (Collective) Breath

In the Time of Coronavirus

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 4, 2020)
Topics: Torah, Vayishlach, Moadim/Holidays, Sukkot, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer

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Sometimes we need to just stop and catch our breath.

Esav moves with his 400 men towards Yaakov and his family, and Yaakov fears for all of their lives. Through a combination of stratagem and diplomacy, Yaakov emerges from the encounter safe and unharmed and is now prepared to continue to Canaan. And yet, the verse tells us that he did not go there straightaway, but that he stopped in a place called Sukkot.“יַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה, וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת; וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת, עַל-כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם סֻכּוֹת – And Yaakov journeyed to Sukkot, and built for himself a house, and made huts for his cattle; therefore the name of the place is called Sukkot.” (Gen 33:17). It is only after this stop that Yaakov travels to Shechem in the land of Canaan. The stay in Sukkot seems quite irrelevant to the larger narrative of Yaakov’s journey home. What, then, is the purpose of mentioning it altogether?

This question is sharpened by another story in which a people – the descendants of Yaakov – narrowly escape harm, and where they too stopped in a place called Sukkot. At the moment of the exodus from Egypt, the verse tells us “וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, סֻכֹּתָה, כְּשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים, לְבַד מִטָּף -And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Sukkot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.” (Ex. 12:37). The parallel of the two places called Sukkot, and their roles as stopping places before the journey continues to Canaan, can surely not be just a coincidence.

What’s more, some of our rabbis go out of their way to underscore the religious significance of this place. According to them, the verse that is the basis for the mitzvah of sitting in sukkot on the holiday of Sukkot – “כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם” – “For I have caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43)- refers not to our living in huts, but to the fact that God brought us from Rameses to a place called Sukkot. Why was arriving at such a place religiously meaningful and what does it have to do with dwelling in huts?

A sukkah, a hut, is a symbol of protection. While not as protective as a house, it is built solely for that purpose. A classic sukkah is made by someone who is out in the fields, guarding the crops or watching the flock, and who constructs a lean-to to provide him shade and protection from the beating sun and the harsh winds. It is not a home – it is not a place to raise a family or set down roots. It is a shield, a screen. It is something that says: you are safe, you are protected.

In the two stories of Yaakov and of the Children of Israel, we see people running away from a challenging and potentially violent situation who feel the need to pause, to stop even briefly, before returning on their journey. They need to be held and protected. They have to be comforted and told “You can calm down now, everything is ok, you’re out of the trouble.” Only once they have taken a breath and regrouped, given themselves time to transition and reorient, can they then proceed on to the land of Cannan. To rush from one experience to the other without stepping back and reflecting would not only be harmful to them and their own psyche and emotional well-being, it would also be harmful to their success in the journey to which they are about to return.

Thank God, we are now seeing the end to this long period of Coronavirus in the offing. At this time, we have to ask ourselves: what is our Sukkot? Where are we going to dwell, be held, and feel safe, before transitioning back to a life that looks like it once did? Will we give ourselves the opportunity to step back, to think about the last year, to reflect on its challenges and how we navigated them, the joys, the difficulties, the things we want to remember and those that we would rather forget? Will we ask ourselves: what were the lessons that we learned that we want to hold onto and apply as we go forward? What are the relationships that we want to continue to nurture? If we can spend a little time tarrying in our Sukkot, we will be able to fully venture forth, with confidence, growth and security, into the larger world, with all of its new challenges and opportunities.