By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
Many seek a silver lining to the life-altering reality caused by COVID-19, and while it no doubt continues to cause so much local and global pain and suffering, I am constantly finding parallels between the new social order of the COVID era and timeless Jewish lessons.
Judaism promotes a standard of measuring our experiences as life lessons and the same should be applied to this pandemic. Among the many details of our new public safety protocol of social distancing is the recommendation to stick to outside dining. You can’t wear a mask while eating and congregating indoors without a mask is not recommended, so do your social dining under the sky.
On Friday evening, Oct. 2, Jews in El Paso and around the world will begin celebrating the festival of Sukkot through Friday, Oct. 9. “Sukkot” means huts and the biblical festival is observed by dining outdoors in a specially constructed Sukkah (hut) covered by greenery and foliage no longer connected to the ground. Every year, for eight days we eat all of our meals outside of the comfort of our homes in the Sukkah.
Over 3,330 years ago, after the Israelites were miraculously redeemed from Egyptian slavery with the 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea, the Bible records that they spent 40 years in the desert before entering the promised land. Two generations of millions of men, women and children developed into a thriving nation in a desolate desert while all their necessities were provided for them in a miraculous manner.
Six days each week a strange substance called manna descended on the Israelite camp, providing them with nourishment, and water flowed from a massive stone providing much-needed hydration for them and their livestock. They were protected from the scorching heat and various other hostile wilderness elements by divine clouds that surrounded the camp on all sides, above and below, and their clothing grew with them, never tearing or becoming threadbare.
Those 40 years were like a simulator preparing them for living life permeated with the knowledge and belief that everything that happens is by divine providence. Just as pilots train in flight simulators to prepare for the real deal, the Israelites living off miracles for 40 years was G-d’s way of training them to appreciate that everything is really a divine gift.
When they entered the promised land and started farming the land and building homes, they would always remember that normal food only happens as a result of G-d’s blessing and the protection of their homes is only due to G-d’s divine protection.
Every year, for one week, we go through that simulator all over again. The Sukkah is a symbol of the divine clouds that provided much needed shelter for our ancestors so many years ago, evoking the memory of the miraculous nutrition, hydration and clothing they lived with during that period as well. Eating our meals in the Sukkah for a full week reminds us of the fundamental perspective the Israelites learned thousands of years ago, filling us with confidence while facing uncertain times.
This is an enduring lesson for us all now more than ever. While we must certainly operate on a natural plane and do what is necessary to eat, stay warm and be healthy, we must never forget that success is truly a divine blessing.
We must do our part in fighting the pandemic by following guidelines and recommendations, but fear, hysteria and the obsession for predicting the outcome is unnecessary.
Times are tough and no one is having a picnic, but the “outdoor dining” of the Sukkah reminds us that ultimately our health and wellbeing is provided by G-d and as long as we do our part, we can be confident that we will come out of this challenging era stronger than ever before.
To learn more about Sukkot please visit www.chabadelpaso.com/sukkot.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.
Cover photo: Menachem Greenberg stands in his Sukkah holding “The Four Kinds” – a citron, a palm frond, three myrtle twigs and two willow twigs – a central observance of Sukkot. (Photo by Levi Greenberg)