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Sukkot: Getting Back to Basics Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Josh Lobel

Sukkot—Friday, September 20, 2013

Our Sages relate to us the following parable. Once upon a time, a sly fox happened upon a lovely vineyard. But, to his disappointment, a tall wooden fence surrounded the vineyard on all sides. As the fox carefully circled around the fence, he found a small hole, barely large enough for him to push his head through. The fox could see what luscious grapes grew in the vineyard, and his mouth began to water. As his appetite grew, he thought about how sweet the fruit must be inside the vineyard. But the hole was too small for him to fit. Frustrated, the fox continued to pace around the enclosure, trying to formulate a plan. Suddenly, the fox thought of a clever idea. What did the sly fox do? He fasted for three days until he became so thin that he managed to slip through the hole and entered the vineyard, much to his delight. Inside the vineyard, the fox began to eat to his heart's content. He was overjoyed at his conquest as he feasted on grapes even sweeter than he imagined. Not content to eat until he was satiated, he stuffed himself until he grew bigger and fatter than ever before. When he was finally satisfied, the fox decided to leave the vineyard. But the fox forgot to take his new size into account. When he attempted to fit through the opening in the fence, he realized, to his dismay, the hole was too small again.

So what did the fox do? Again he fasted for three days until he was as skinny as when he entered the vineyard. He then managed to slip through the hole and reach the other side of the fence. Turning his head towards the vineyard, the poor fox said: "Vineyard, how lovely you look, and how lovely are your fruits and vines. But what good are you to me? Just as I came to you, so I leave you…"

This story comes to teach us a valuable lesson about the frivolity of focusing solely on material possessions. In our day and age, people expend so much of their time and energy seeking to acquire the latest cutting edge technology, the newest extravagant creature comfort, the most innovative gadget. There is a compulsion to put in longer hours at our jobs in order to earn more money for the privilege of purchasing products that bring temporary happiness, which fades as soon as the next version is released. People spend and spend, as the societal impulse to keep up with the Jones’ causes them to continue upgrading their homes, their cars, and their clothes. Expensive treats become status symbols to be displayed to friends and neighbors. We put so much value in our commodities that we forget that when we leave this earth, we won’t be able to take them with us. In the end, our collection of gadgets and gizmos are meaningless. Dust we are, and to dust we will return.

On Sukkot, we read the book of Ecclesiastes which speaks about this phenomenon.

Attributed to the wisest of all Jewish leaders, King Solomon, Ecclesiastes speaks about the impermanence of existence and the sheer senselessness of hoarding material possessions. What is the author’s attitude regarding the acquisition of riches and luxury? “הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל”, “Futility, utter futility, all is futility”. A person can amass a great fortune, but there is no lasting value to financial success, because wealth is temporary. The poor person can wake up tomorrow a multimillionare after winning Powerball, while the rich person’s finances take a tumble after a bad week at the stock market. And, in the end, we all face the reality that our possessions will eventually be taken from us when we pass away. We come into the world empty handed. We leave it the same way.

Much like Shabbat, Sukkot comes to remind us that sometimes we need to take a break from modernity and all its conveniences. We seek respite from the siren’s call of our computers, our cable T.Vs, and our cell phones. During Sukkot, we get back to basics. We give up the comforts of our homes to dwell in a temporary hut, a reminder of the portable dwelling places the Israelites used as shelter as they wandered in the wilderness. Our ancestors were nomads, who carried all their possessions on their backs. They only took with them what they needed to survive. They understood that they only needed the essentials.

Imagine that tomorrow, you were told to leave your home forever and you can only bring with you what you could carry. What would you grab first? I bet it wouldn’t be the 50 inch LCD HD TV or the high end grill. However, many have convinced themselves these much-desired luxury items are actually necessary for us to lead fulfilling lives.

But when we visit our sukkah, we realize how inconsequential they really are to our happiness. In our temporary booths, there are no sounds of video games, no blaring home theater systems, just the sounds of chirping birds and the laughter of our loved ones. There is no fancy art on the walls, no shelves crammed with chatchkas and assorted impulse buys. Instead, we are surrounded by the beauty of nature decorating the walls of our sukkah. There is no need for air conditioning, as the construction of the sukkah allows us to feel the caress of the cool fall breeze. In the sukkah, there is no room for our sectional sofas and dining room tables. But there is ample space for our family, friends, and neighbors to join us in a holiday meal.

Sukkot, a holiday of elegant simplicity, beckons us to return to a time when things were less complicated. It asks us to turn off the high definition nature channel with its crystal clear picture and actually experience the outdoors again. It calls us to put away all of our fancy technological devices and pick up a lulav. And, most importantly, it reminds us that we have no need to use our cell phones to call or text our loved ones when we gather everyone together under the roof of the same sukkah.

During the celebration of Sukkot, we realize that we do not need our luxury items to feel content. The most extravagant item of this holiday, the object that is the most desirable, is an etrog, a small citrus fruit, with its pitom still attached. This tiny protrusion makes all the difference between a viable etrog and one that is discarded. It is a reminder that sometimes it is the simple things in life that are the most meaningful. Chag Samaech.

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