A Jewish ultra-Orthodox family prepares their sukkah (hut) for the celebrations of Sukkot in the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Meah Shearim, Jerusalem, Israel, October 5 2014. (Abir Sultan/EPA)

There haven’t been a whole lot of good Jewish carpenters since Jesus.

As I have just learned anew, I’m not about to reverse the trend.

I celebrated the ancient harvest festival of Sukkot last week by building, for the first time, a temporary shelter in my back yard called a sukkah. I erected the contraption using an aluminum frame, PVC pipe for cross beams and reeds for the roof. I held it all together with twine, a couple of ad hoc prayers and just a touch of packing tape. I bought the traditional sacramental objects — a lulav (palm frond) and etrog (citron) — from Amazon and invited a couple dozen friends over to celebrate.

The morning of the party, I awoke to see that an overnight storm had collapsed my sukkah into a heap of tangled aluminum. As my girlfriend and I rushed to Home Depot to buy lumber and nails for an emergency replacement sukkah, I wondered if this was God’s idea of a joke.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my crumpled sukkah was a fitting way to celebrate the eight-day holiday, which ends at sundown Wednesday. In pre-biblical times, Sukkot was a pagan celebration of the harvest. But over the centuries it has developed a secondary meaning as a memento mori — a reminder that life is fleeting. The sukkah, easily raised and demolished, reminds us that we are here temporarily.

“Your sukkah went into action a little bit early in terms of falling apart,” my rabbi, Danny Zemel of Washington’s Temple Micah, explained, but “that’s totally symbolically in keeping with the theme that the holiday is about.”

Passover has its Seder plate and Hanukkah has its menorah, but Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday with no permanent symbol. The sukkah is disassembled. The lulav and etrog dry and shrivel. On Sukkot, Jews read Ecclesiastes with its message, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Vanity is the King James translation, but in the Hebrew it’s “hebel,” or breath. This, in turn, is an echo of Psalms 144: “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.”

I’m not a particularly observant Jew, but there is something magical in this holiday, once the most widely celebrated but now minor. Over the last week, the world has been talking about Ebola and the Islamic State terrorist group on the Turkish border. Washington has been all about midterm campaign ads and debates, and some particularly vile tweets have been coming my way. It felt soothing to turn all that off for a bit and dedicate myself to the primal rituals of building the sukkah—and, after nature tore it down, rebuilding it, stronger and better, with four-inch posts and 2-by-4 beams.

According to the ancient edict, I gave the shelter — a farmer’s hut, essentially — enough of a roof to provide shade but not so much that it blocks starlight. My daughter arranged plants and strung fruits for decoration. Following the primitive instructions, we bound a single date palm branch to two willow branches and three myrtle branches. Holding these together with the citron, each participant faced the east and shook the lulav in all four directions and then up and down — probably the vestiges of a pagan rain dance that is now an expression of God’s omnipresence. Then we ate.

This was the most celebrated holiday in antiquity, a singular time of plenty. Over the millennia, new meanings were grafted on: first, the sukkah came to symbolize shelters the Israelites used during their 40 years in the wilderness, and then, Sukkot was paired with the life-is-short theme of Ecclesiastes. (Among the many Sukkot interpretations is a Talmudic passage adding a sea monster into the mix, which may account for what happened to my original sukkah.)

Though joyous Sukkot dominated in ancient times, in these days of excess the most important Jewish holiday is penitential Yom Kippur. Sukkot comes just after the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), which is about life, and Yom Kippur, which is about death. Sukkot mixes both, which is why this pagan festival may be the most meaningful of modern holidays.

Zemel, my rabbi, says Sukkot is his favorite Jewish holiday. “After the pressure of the High Holidays,” he says, “I love taking naps in my sukkah and not having to think of anything. I dream of the Chicago White Sox playing in the World Series.”

There are neither sea monsters nor White Sox in my rebuilt sukkah — just a laden table where friends and family can celebrate bountiful times, even as we recall with a wisp of sadness that all breath is fleeting.

Twitter: @Milbank

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