On Sandcastles & Acceptance | Shabbat CH’h Sukkot 5780
There is a strip of sand that stretches from the base of Coronado Island along the Silver Strand until it kisses the invisible international border with Baja California. It’s quiet there, and its beaches are soft and supple. We didn’t go there often to swim when I was a kid, possibly because Imperial Beach was for years an unintentional dumping ground where the waste that sloughed upwards from Tijuana mixed with the regular tides. But once a summer we’d sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic with the rest of San Diego and Arizona-based interlopers, and after the memorable ordeal of parking we’d make our way to the boardwalk and start our gallery walk. There before us lay: the US Open… Sandcastle Competition. The annual contest ran from 1980 until 2011, 32 years of artistry by talented teams from across the country. They would build for six hours straight, and when the buzzer went off at 2 p.m. they’d rise from the sand sweating as thousands of onlookers cheered incredulously. The sculptures were unfailingly impressive, massive three-dimensional works with figures often formed to full human scale. Superheroes, jungle creatures, scenes from movies. The competition still exists informally, and one clever team in 2014 crafted a gravestone that read, “US Open Sandcastle Competition, RIP, 1980–2011” accompanied by an enormous zombie hand clawing up from a grave.
The festival starts each year on a Friday and the winners are announced on Saturday at 5 in the evening with the summer sun still high above the water. By the time Sunday morning rolls around, everything is gone: the tents, the taped-off art zones, the beach chairs and vendors and stages, gone. And the sand sculptures are, by then, just lumps, melted pyramids of mud with vague reference to the painstaking artistry that shaped them just a day earlier. They’re organically returning to the wet earth from which they were dug. Tourists walk the sandy pier and point at the ruins of the competition that will soon be forgotten.
There’s a somewhat parallel narrative that shakes out each year in Pico-Robertson in the five days following Yom Kippur when an aerial time-lapsed video would show hundreds of sukkot emerging across the landscape. Big ones, little ones, fancy ones and plain ones. Permanent trellises and gazebos laid over with palm fronds and bamboo mats. Built to shelter thousands and thousands of collective moments of beauty. Late night meals, singing, laughter, dreams beneath the peekaboo stars. And in a few days from now, gone, leaving a few holes on a lawn that will grow over in a matter of weeks and piles of detritus left for curbside pickup.
There’s so much talk during Sukkot about the reminder that these temporary huts are to us of the frailty of human existence. We hold our spine-like lulavim in hand and shake them as if to wake us up to the fragility of our lives, and speak of the ways in which this festival serves as a reminder that our status as stably-housed humans is delicate. I don’t want to negate those reminders, especially when they serve as catalysts for active altruism, as in our hosting of a meal in the synagogue sukkah this past week for local residents who are homeless or experiencing a housing crisis.
But there is another side to the temporal nature of Sukkot, and that is the embrace of its transience and the joy that can come with giving in to the temporary nature of humanity and our experiences. Rabbi Ron Isaacs writes about a fascinating possibility for interpreting the language by which we bless the Sukkot holiday, as z’man simchateinu. He explains that an archaeological study in Elephanti, Egypt uncovered several real estate contracts that included the following two phrases “Upon prompt payment I deed you this land.” “This simcha with joy, love, and happiness.” Rabbi Isaacs writes, “After a careful study of the comparative language of real estate contracts, scholars have learned that simcha in ancient languages has a second meaning, namely, that of “acceptance.” Thus, the phrase zeman simchateinu might be rendered not “time of rejoicing” but “moment of acceptance.” Sukkot is a time for accepting the inevitability of change, the impermanence of our conditions, the gift of time-bound experiences that move from something we are living to a memory that we can revisit.
In fact, we don’t mourn a downed sukkah during the holiday. The Jewish nerds among us are delighted the night after a storm to point out as our tarps and poles are strewn across lawns and into alleys, that in fact it is their very ability to be knocked over by unusually powerful winds that renders them kosher — retroactively, of course. It’s not entirely unlike the joy I recall feeling as a kid at the beach when the high tide came in with an unexpectedly quick swell and turned my elaborate sandcastles into mush. I would squeal and giggle as cold water washed up from under my toes, inspecting my newly flat canvas and already drawing mental blueprints for what’s next. In a few days’ time as I’m rolling up my bamboo mats I’ll be fantasizing about Thanksgiving menus and wondering what kind of Hanukkiot my kid will make in the ECC this year.
We make beautiful, temporary things all the time, on purpose. I remember an interview recently between fashion icon Simon Doonan and one of my favorite Jewish food commentators, Dan Pashman, on his podcast, The Sporkful. Simon described to Dan how he’d learned from his husband, designer Jonathan Adler, the art of properly plating food. We really do eat with our eyes first, Simon shared, and he knows that their guests sometimes roll their eyes at the elaborate nature of the food art they serve up at the table. Yes, it’s all going to wind up jumbled in our stomachs, but there is a sensuous and gloriously pleasant touch to a bite of food that starts out beautiful. But we don’t mourn a scraped-clean plate of food; in fact, we celebrate it, maybe even say a prayer of gratitude for the gift of its sustenance. Case in point: it’s been four months since we had a date night out where I ate an Impossible Burger on homemade brioche with a fried egg and it was served to me on an absurdly beautiful setup but I tell you I could close my eyes right now and see it and practically taste the power of its umami like its crumbs were still in front of me. A perfectly crafted and intentionally tentative experience turned unforgettable because it was done so thoughtfully.
It makes sense that we assume that things that are materially permanent will bring us more lasting joy (maybe even permanently) than experiences that are fleeting. But psychologically speaking, the opposite is true. Studies show that we derive equal joy at the moment of receiving a palpable, corporeal gift as we do when we’re granted an experience — think, the difference between getting an original painting of the ocean versus a snorkeling trip — but that over time we derive more happiness from the experience. With physical objects, we adapt to their beauty and over time relate to them with less excitement, less newness. A trip, an experience, is just the opposite; if anything, our nostalgia for the time we spent grows as time goes on. Perhaps a triple entendre of z’man simchateinu is that Sukkot is a gift that increases in joy over time because it is finite, because it must end, and therefore can only live in memories of late-night snacks and raucous singing and stories shared among friends both old and new.
The sukkah is so temporary a dwelling place that even though we transform it into dining, living, and sleeping spaces, we don’t affix a mezuzah to its doorpost. That wasn’t a given, initially, in rabbinic literature, and there’s a healthy discourse in the Babylonian Talmud, on Yoma 10b, as to why we might or might not be required to hang a mezuzah on the entrance to our sukkah.
But the thing about mezuzot is that the mezuzah itself is an embodiment of the Jewish affection for the transient nature of existence. The sixth chapter in Devarim that we recite twice daily in our liturgy instructs us, uchtavtam al mezuzot beitecha uvish’arekha, and you should inscribe them on the doorposts, the mezuzot, of your homes and on your gates. If we translated this to action literally we would have inherited the law or custom of carving the words of the Shema into the stone or wood or metal of our doorposts. But dating back to Qumran and the oldest remnants of Israelite dwellings with known access, Jews have been scribing the words of the Shema on parchment and placing them into a crevice in the door, presumably so it could be removed and taken with them when they inevitably moved. It’s that inevitability of disequilibrium, the permanence of fluidity, the ever-wandering nature of our people that helps us to have confidence in the finitude of negative experiences and to find comfort even when a good thing comes to an end.
So cheers and l’chaim to time-bound experiences, to the end of the festivals and another season and whatever comes next. May this z’man simchateinu grant each of us a renewed appreciation of our linear experience of time. I wish you a chag sameach, a festival of joyful experiences destined to be joyful memories. Shabbat Shalom.