from the heart of jerusalem

Building a sukkah means never giving up


In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered the commencement address at Stanford University. In it, he described how he had started Apple in a garage at age 20, and after ten years of hard work, built it into a $2-billion company with 4,000 employees.

And then he got fired and lost it all.

He had hired a guy to help him build the company, but after a year they started to see things differently, eventually had a falling out, and the board sided with the new guy and fired Jobs. He was devastated and did not know what to do.

So he decided to start over again. He did not realize it then, but it would be the best thing that ever happened to him. The heaviness of being successful had been replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, and thus began the most creative period in his life. He started two companies, NEXT and PIXAR, and fell in love with the woman who would become his wife.

Pixar created the first animated feature film (Toy Story) and became the most successful animation studio in the world.

Jobs was pretty sure none of this would have happened if he had not been fired from Apple.

Sometimes life will hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. You will find what you love.

With Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur behind us, we enter the festival of Sukkoth, symbolized by the sukkah we sit in for seven days. Unlike Pesach and Shavuot, each of which has clear historical origins, the events which the festival of Sukkoth are meant to commemorate are not at all clear.

Two of the most famous rabbis in Jewish history debate the nature of the sukkah. Rabbi Eliezer says they represent the Clouds of Glory which miraculously protected the Jews in the desert. Rabbi Akiva, however, believes we are commemorating the actual booths that the Jews dwelled in for 40 years in the desert.

What is so special about booths in the desert? Nomadic people wandering the desert for 40 years will build huts, much as the Bedouin still do today.

Also, given the fact that Rabbi Akiva was a student of Rabbi Eliezer, why does he differ from his rebbe on this? Rabbi Akiva was a principal proponent of the Bar Kochba rebellion (131-135 CE) and was captured and tortured to death by the Romans for his role in supporting the revolt; perhaps Rabbi Akiva was saying that we cannot wait for Clouds of Glory if we wish to bring redemption, we need to be willing to build the booths ourselves.

A good friend, Dr. Meier Becker, once suggested that if the Jews had not sinned at the golden calf, they would have received the Torah and been on their way to Israel, protected by Clouds of Glory, without needing to build the sukkot. Indeed, the sin of the golden calf occurred on the 17th of Tammuz (40 days after the 7th of Sivan, the festival of Shavuot) and the Jewish people would have been in Israel by the new moon of Av and would never have experienced winter in the desert, so perhaps they would not have needed the booths. But in the aftermath of the golden calf and then the sin of the spies (which occurred on the 9th of Av) the Jews were doomed to wander the desert for 40 years, which necessitated the building of the sukkot.

The Clouds of Glory represented the world as it was meant to be, the ideal. The sukkot represented the world as it was. Rabbi Akiva understood the reality of his day, and realized the Jewish people could not sit around waiting for Clouds of Glory, they needed to be willing to build their own booths.

We celebrate the booths in the desert because they symbolize the willingness of a people, with nothing but faith, to start over again, to believe the long journey will one day bring their children home.

Rabbi Akiva must have known how impossible the revolt against the Roman empire was, but he still believed the battle to be worthwhile (much like Mordechai Anilewicz in the Warsaw Ghetto) because it meant the Jews had not, and would never, give up. And 2,000 years later, the long lost children of those bar Kochba rebels, having never given up, emerged from the temporary booths of their wandering and exile and came home at last. 

Sukkot is the festival of faith and joy, and the belief that the long difficult journey will one day prove worthwhile. This is true both on a national level and for us as individuals.

As Steve Jobs suggested, the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you have not found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you will know when you find it.

For thousands of years, we refused to settle, and now we are home. And despite what some leaders in Iran may say, we will still be here in 25 years and in 2,500 years, with Hashem’s help.

A version of this column was published in 2015.