The sukkah, the fragile hut that gives the Sukkot holiday its name, could be the most ambivalent symbol in all of Jewish tradition. Custom dictates that we spend a week each fall dwelling — or at least taking meals — in a roofless shack, open to the heavens. It is, we are taught, a time to be at one with nature and its bounty. Then again, we are taught, it is also a reminder of our vulnerability to nature’s wrath.
The prayer book calls this holiday zman simchateinu, “the season of our joy.” But it is a joy tinged with sadness, even foreboding. The days grow shorter. The air has a wintry chill. In Israel, where the holiday originated, it marks the end of the summer drought and the onset of the rainy season. And so we sit in our sukkot, reveling in nature but waiting to be drenched, uncertain just how to feel.
This year, there was little doubt. Due to the vagaries of the lunar calendar, the holiday came late. Sukkah dwellers in Israel and much of North America spent the holiday soaked and shivering, more than a little unhappy in this season of joy.
Nowhere was the misery greater than in Florida, where the holiday was interrupted by Hurricane Wilma. It was the 21st named tropical storm of the current season — an all-time record — and the eighth hurricane to hit Florida in 15 months. One-quarter of the state’s residents were left without electricity. Damage was expected to run as high as $10 billion. Only in comparison to New Orleans residents did some Floridians consider themselves lucky. Just a half-dozen had been killed by this storm. Yet every death is a world unto itself.
Given the demography of sukkah dwellers, there was considerable debate during the holiday about the role of global warming in the increasing frequency and intensity of storms, and the political implications of the trend. In some parts of Florida, sukkot were filled with dark talk of a plague that began in 2000 with hanging chads and continues with falling rain.
It is simply wrong, of course, to blame President Bush for the hurricanes. To the extent that global warming is responsible for the storms’ growing intensity, it is a warming that began decades ago and built slowly. Bush inherited it.
Where Bush can be faulted is in his response to the crisis, or lack of it. Now that the world community has reached a consensus on reducing the destructive use of fossil fuels, our own government has planted itself firmly in the way of reform. As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorialized Saturday, just before Wilma hit: “It’s long past time for the Bush administration to get its head out of the sand and start attacking this problem. Or will we just let it keep attacking us?”
What magnifies the foreboding, perhaps beyond the limit of reasoned political discourse, is the fear that Bush and his administration are incapable of responding. Time after time, we learn after a crisis has struck that this administration had shut itself off from information it disliked — not just from critics, but also from scientists, economists and even its own intelligence experts. We are left feeling as though our leaders have left us not merely unprotected, but willfully so.
In one New York sukkah we know of, the rain gave rise one evening to a sober discussion of the hurricane then heading toward Florida, threatening so many parents and friends of the assembled. The arrival of Wilma, one guest noted, meant that the National Hurricane Center, which names each season’s storms in alphabetical order, had run out of officially sanctioned letters for the first time ever. “Think of what this means,” the guest declared. “We’ve never had a W before.”
The sukkah fell silent. Yes, everyone agreed, that’s what is frightening. We’ve never had a W before.