Heady reflections on a Sukkos adventure

I looked in the mirror this morning and realised that the bump on my head hasn’t quite gone away. It’s only a couple of weeks since Sukkos, so I thought I’d share the story and what I learned from it.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed (Thursday) I had planned to join my family for a trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (see here for another article in which I mention Kew Gardens), However, I was exhausted and decided to stay at home, especially as we were hosting a Sukkos party for my community that evening. My wife and children left the house and I decided to rest, so I donned my pyjamas (remember this for later) and dragged my mattress into the Sukkah.

After an hour and a half, I was refreshed and ready to continue with my day. However, my attempts to return to the house were thwarted by the discovery that the back door was mysteriously locked from the inside. I could see the keys in the lock and, frustratingly, my cell phone on a table within, but I couldn’t access either.

As we leave our front door secured only by a number-lock during the day, I was certain that if I could get into the front garden, I could re-enter the house through the main door. I squelched my way in my socks to the side gate and tried, unsuccessfully, to climb over it, cracking my head in the process. A bit dazed, but not badly hurt, I remembered the ladder at the back of the garden. I intended to climb over the gate and take the ladder with me, but this failed too: while I was sitting on the lintel, the ladder fell back into the garden. I managed to scramble down into the front garden, where, inexplicably, I found the front door locked. I was now standing in the front garden in my socks and pyjamas (remember them?) unable to get into either the house or back into the garden. Contemplating the possibility of a further couple of hours of this situation, I hid behind a car, hoping for some kind of solution.

At this point, a neighbour walked past en route to a funeral. He noticed me and insisted that I come and sit in his Sukkah rather than crouch behind the car. I accepted his invitation, which included a drink and the loan of a sweater and a coat. I then realised that I didn’t know my wife’s cell number, so I called my parents to ask for assistance. The conversation began a little like this: ‘hello, I’m sitting in a neighbour’s Sukkah wearing my pyjamas.’ When they stopped laughing, which took quite some time, they were able to put me in contact with my wife, who was at least a hour away.

There is a small gap in the fencing between our house and the neighbour’s garden, so foolishly, I resolved to return to my own garden. I was hoping to prise open a window or get in some other way. I squeezed through the gap, entered my garden and quickly discovered that I still couldn’t get into the house. I was also unable to get back through the gap in the fence (perhaps I should have realised that my eight-year-old son, the usual gap-squeezer, is rather smaller that me), so I was again stuck in the garden in my pyjamas.

I heard a ring at the door, so I climbed the ladder again and peered over. This was one of several conversations I conducted in my pyjamas over the following 45 minutes with passers-by, from my perch nine feet from the ground. The most remarkable was with another neighbour, who approached the house, saw me looking over the gate from a great height and said, with a straight face, ‘hello Rabbi Belovski: the party is this evening, isn’t it?’ When I replied in the affirmative, he thanked me and walked away, making no reference to the fact that I was on a ladder, in my pyjamas, behind the gate, or, most significantly, that my head was bleeding. Perhaps my life is so odd that this event seemed the very paragon of normality.

Two hours after discovering that I was locked out, my wife returned and admitted a rather damp and bedraggled rabbi to the house.

So what had happened? How had I been locked out? That is explained by a remarkable series of ‘coincidences’. While I had been sleeping, the musician booked to play at the evening’s party (an old friend) had arrived at the house to deliver his equipment, wrongly assuming that we would be at home. When no-one answered, he took a bold step: his assistant climbed over the side-gate, discovered to his delight that we had been silly enough to leave the back door unlocked and entered the house. He opened the front door and unloaded his kit. As I was heavily asleep and wearing earplugs, I heard none of this. Assuming that he was doing me a favour, he locked the front and back doors before leaving, trapping me in the Sukkah…

I have retold this story several times, including in my sermon on Shemini Atzeres. It has made people in the UK and in Israel cry with laughter at my plight, but mostly at the thought of the rabbi standing on a ladder in his pyjamas noting the (non) reactions of passers-by. It is the most powerful and real Sukkos message I could have received. Every year, we speak about Sukkos reminding us that life is impermanent, that our material possessions are ephemeral and that our security can evaporate at any moment. We may know this intellectually, but, thank God, most of us have few opportunities to experience this directly, even for a short while. My brief exile from my home made the message of Sukkos more real for me than I recall it having been in the past.

Many people say a prayer before entering the Sukkah which mentions the possibility that in the aftermath of the judgement of Yom Kippur, one deserves the punishment of exile. We ask God to consider our week-long sojourn in the Sukkah as a type of ‘exile’ in place of a full-scale banishment. I thought of this prayer after my little adventure and hope that it remains true for me.

A gezinte winter!

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