Posted on December 1, 2019 by Alissa Platcow
This article is by current PEEP (’19-’20) student Alissa Platcow. This was originally written after the holidays, and serves as a Fall semester reflection.
The wind whistled through the trees outside as we perched peering out the window into the storm watching the sukkah my family had lovingly built up from the ground, the hut in which we had just hours before eaten dinner, come crashing down. The rain and wind brought most of the handcrafted sukkot in the area to the ground that night. Although we instinctively mourned the loss of our sukkah, it reminded us that a sukkah is supposed to be temporary – we are only supposed to live there for seven days. It is not a place to dwell forever.
After about a year and a half of living in Jerusalem, I returned to the States for the first time blessed to spend the Sukkot break with family and friends. While home, I had the wonderful opportunity of serving as a guest teacher at my childhood synagogue, Temple Emeth of Chestnut Hill. Armed with a year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College and a few months at Pardes, I set out to teach a full sugyah (a section of Talmud) for the first time. Inspired by a class taught by Leah Rosenthal at Pardes, I decided to dive into the halachot surrounding eating in the sukkah based on Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation, as Leah put it, the Road Not Taken.
“‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’ and Rabbi Eliezer’s was the road not taken,” she had quoted. When it comes to the halacha (Jewish Law) regarding Sukkot, Rabbi Eleizer’s vision was very different from the mainstream rabbinic interpretation. According to him, the Torah instructed us to construct our own sukkot and, over the course of the holiday, sit in them for fourteen meals. His requirements included that one must own their sukkah and eat all fourteen meals in the same sukkah. As we dove into the text, those around the circle both at Pardes and at Temple Emeth, became uneasy picturing Sukkot without the hustle and bustle of constant company during meals and without the festive sukkah hops leading participants all over the city from one warm and welcoming sukkah to the next. However, we continued to sit with Rabbi Eliezer’s words and together we imagined what his Sukkot could have been: A family or even individual centric holiday in which Jews who have just gone through the intensive and in-depth period of reflection leading up to and during Yom Kippur spend time deepening the bonds between them and their immediate family, those who live closest to them, not only by physically building a sukkah, but spiritually and mentally building and preparing the kind of person they wish to be in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, together we pound our chests confessing our sins not only as individuals, but as a community. However, the real work and the fulfillment of the art of teshuva comes only afterward. Perhaps Rabbi Eliezer wanted to gift us a moment to take a breath before we encounter the outside world as the people we promised our loved ones, our God and ourselves that we would be in the next year.
For many Pardes is similar to a sukkah. Separated from nature’s elements by only the thin, permeable walls of the sukkah, we can often feel a bit uncomfortable. So too, Pardes pushes us to expand our intellectual horizons, asking us to devour larger pieces of talmudic texts than we ever believed we could absorb, and encouraging us, regardless of where we fall on the religiously observant or political spectra, to not just hear, but listen to the opinions of those with whom we disagree most urging us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We are pushed outside of our comfort zones and yet, during Sukkot we are reminded “לֹֽא־יָמִ֞ישׁ עַמּ֤וּד הֶֽעָנָן֙ יוֹמָ֔ם וְעַמּ֥וּד הָאֵ֖שׁ לָ֑יְלָה לִפְנֵ֖י הָעָֽם – The pillar of cloud and pillar of fire did not depart from the people.” Throughout our time in the desert, God guided and supported us. So too, as we traverse our discomfort with our tradition or the realities facing Israel today, the walls of Pardes and unbelievably knowledgeable faculty shelter and ground us providing much of the foundation and skills needed to approach these dissonances.
I imagine that at the end of Sukkot as Simchat Torah set in, Rabbi Eliezer envisioned a mass exodus of people who had grown over the past week and after putting the finishing touches on their plans for the next year emerge to rejoice in not only finishing the cycle of our Torah, but ready to start anew. This year at Pardes, I look forward to what promises to be immense growth with the knowledge that before I know it, the year will come to a close. At that point, I too will have to emerge and do my part in taking on the challenges of the world outside our Pardes sukkah.