I remember the day I turned twenty years old. In Jewish thought, turning twenty is very significant because it is only at the age of twenty that we become fully responsible for our actions. Though girls and boys become Jewish adults at the ages of 12 and 13 respectively, we are not fully responsible for our sins until the age of twenty.
I understood that turning twenty was a big deal, but I didn’t know how to properly celebrate this significant birthday. A rabbi of mine directed me to a book of letters by Rabbi Moses Feinstein, in which Rabbi Feinstein addressed a twenty-year-old who had exactly the same question that I had. What was his advice? Rabbi Feinstein told this boy to “be careful to honor your mother.”
I’ll be honest – I was looking for something more exciting or profound than simply being careful to honor my mother. I thought he might tell me to study the Bible all night or do something “spiritual.” Honoring my mother is incredibly important, of course, but what did that have to do with turning twenty?
This week, Jews all over the world are celebrating the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). Regarding this holiday, the Bible tells us:
“You shall live in booths for seven days.” (Leviticus 23:42)
The Bible commands us to build small huts and live in them for seven days. According to Jewish law, when you build your little hut, called a sukkah, you can build the walls out of anything you want – wood, metal, plastic, canvas – as long as the walls are sturdy enough that they won’t flap in the breeze.
But there are very specific rules about what can and cannot be used for the roof of the Sukkah. In order to be “kosher,” the roof has to fulfill the following 3 requirements:
- It must be made out of something that grows from the ground, like tree branches.
- The branches or leaves must be cut off from the tree and not attached to the ground.
- The materials used for the roof must be unfinished items that have not been processed into objects with specific functions like a ladder or door.
What is the reason behind all of these laws that govern the roof of the Sukkah?
I once read an article written by Lisa Morguess, a frustrated mother. She described a classic scene: After her kids were all ready for school she would turn on the TV. But like all good moms, she had a rule – the kids could only watch certain channels. The rule was that mom sets the channel, and no one could change it without permission.
The problem was that her daughter, Annabelle, never stuck to this rule. The moment her mom walked out of the room she would start changing the channel. One particular morning, after reminding Annabelle not to touch the TV, she found her daughter channel surfing again and totally lost it.
Morguess writes about her reaction that morning:
“I’m not excusing my losing it this morning. I’m ashamed. I wish I held it together better, I really do. But this is why people say that motherhood is a hard job. Not because it’s especially intellectually challenging or physically demanding – I mean it is those things, but there are certainly other pursuits that require far more intellectual and physical effort than motherhood. It’s because it’s so incredibly thankless so much of the time. It’s because I feel like I’ve sacrificed so much of myself for them, and they don’t appreciate it. It’s because I do and do and do for them, constantly, and it often seems like all I get in return is complaining that it’s not enough – or just outright ignored. I’m not looking for accolades or awards or fanfare. But how about a thank you?”
This, to me, captures the greatest challenge of motherhood. It’s not the constant work or the incredible juggling it requires. More than any of these things, it’s the feeling of thanklessness, the sense that everything you do is “expected” and therefore ignored.
This is why, I believe, Rabbi Feinstein told the twenty-year-old boy who reached out to him for advice to honor his mother. Because it’s precisely at the age of twenty, when a young man enters the age of responsibility and a new level of maturity, he must stop and reflect upon all the little things that his mother did for him while he was growing up that he never properly appreciated.
As Lisa Morguess said, “How about a ‘thank you’?” At twenty, when you become a full-fledged adult, it’s time to wake up and say ‘thank you.’
Why do we have these strange laws when it comes to the roof of the Sukkah? All three of these restrictions ensure that the materials we use for our Sukkah roofs will be things that we don’t generally value. Leaves, branches, grass, weeds – there is no end to things that grow from the ground. Because we have so much of it, we treat it like it’s worthless. And they have to be cut from the ground. We appreciate beautiful, living trees with strong branches. But when the leaves fall off the tree and the branches are broken, we totally ignore them. Similarly, the roof can’t be made out of a vessel or anything that has been made into something that we value.
When we build our Sukkahs, we are commanded to build them out of materials that we take for granted all year long. A few weeks before Sukkot we hardly notice the branches lying in the corners of our backyards. But when we build the Sukkah, our perspective changes – what we didn’t see or value before becomes the essence of the commandment.
The message of the Sukkah roof is to pay attention and take notice.
On the holiday of Sukkot we are commanded to live in the Sukkah as much as possible. For seven days, we look up at the broken branches and leaves that we step on all year long. Once a year, we are commanded to stop, notice and appreciate all the little kindnesses that we ignore all year long.
Whether it’s our mothers who spend so many years of their lives doing mundane yet invaluable things that enrich our lives in so many ways; or whether it’s the small blessings our Father in Heaven rains down upon us every moment of every day – today is the day to sit in the Sukkah and to pay attention.