June 19, 2024
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The Symbolism of Sukkot for Another COVID School Year

Sukkot represents at once both the ultimate in Jewish precision and the ultimate in Jewish precariousness.

On the one hand, the rabbis over the centuries articulated crystal-clear protocols for how the holiday should be observed. We know precisely how many walls our sukkah must have, how wide and tall each wall must be, and how many tefachim (handbreadths) of space between the wall and the ground would be too many. We know exactly how far the walls are permitted to billow out in the wind, and how much coverage must be provided by the s’chach. We are told specifically how to assemble the components of the lulav and how and when to wave it each day.

On the other hand, the very premise of Sukkot is symbolic of the uncertainty of life. We work very hard to construct the sukkah precisely as instructed, and yet we can never be confident that it will ultimately be hospitable. Will a storm knock down a structure that by its nature is meant to be impermanent? Will rainfall or cold temperatures make it impossible to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah with joy? Will the pitom of the etrog break off accidentally, or will the aravot rot prematurely, thus rendering my arba minim unusable? While the holiday requires perhaps more preparation than any other, we ultimately find ourselves leaving the fate of our celebration in God’s hands—as no amount of advance effort can bring complete certainty to an observance that is so overwhelmingly reliant on the unpredictable whims of nature.

In this sense, the 2020-2021 school year felt very much like Sukkot. As we looked ahead to an in-person school year following three months of lockdown and remote instruction, we prepared meticulously, with the benefit of detailed guidelines provided by various government entities. We knew precisely how far apart the desks had to be, what types of masks needed to be worn and when, which models of air purifier were needed, and the precise circumstances under which someone would have to enter quarantine. We knew which sports would be allowed and which wouldn’t, as well as which types of musical instruments would be permitted and under what circumstances (including special rules for sounding the shofar!). The guidance itself, almost like a modern-day halachic code, ran into dozens or even hundreds of pages. What needed to be done was clear; the only question was about which schools would be blessed with the wherewithal, resources and space to be able to do it.

Of course, as is the case on Sukkot, the clarity of the rules in the fall of 2020 was coupled with intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and faith. We know how to build the walls of our sukkah; we just don’t know whether or not they will be strong enough to withstand the forces that nature will bring to us that year. Similarly, we knew to stand six feet apart, to replace our HEPA filters, and to wear our multi-layered masks. But would all the steps, no matter how carefully undertaken, truly keep us safe? Most of us hadn’t set foot in a public building for six months; could we really gather as a community without recklessly courting the spread of the virus?

One year later, following a successful school year in which most of us were thankfully able to answer a profound “yes” to these questions, our situation as we enter 2021-2022 feels quite different. In spite of the fact that COVID-19 positivity rates are actually higher than they were one year ago, and the Delta variant is known to be more transmissible than the 2020 version of the virus, anxiety in school communities is substantially diminished relative to last Sukkot. This is due to a year of confidence-inducing success in limiting transmission in schools, widespread vaccination, improved data regarding which protocols were effective in maintaining safety and which were extraneous, and our communities’ generally having grown accustomed to living in an era of uncertainty and precaution.

Also different this year, however, is the lack of clear guidelines—COVID halacha, if you will—that characterized 2020-2021. Gone are many of the rigid prescriptions, that, as onerous as they sometimes felt, at least provided a concrete roadmap for operating school. In their place we are left with suggestions; constant risk calculation; and many, many judgment calls. How far apart should desks be? Six feet is best. Three feet is okay. Unless that isn’t feasible, in which case less is okay too. Should students be screened for symptoms every morning? This was a time-consuming process that probably achieved little last year to limit spread. But we really don’t want anyone coming to school with symptoms, and the daily reminders instilled confidence in the community. Can students use the playground this year, or the water fountains? We now know that COVID-19 is not really spread through surface contact. But use of playgrounds and water fountains causes students to congregate close together. We will have to use our judgment, yet again…

Following the spiritual intensity and introspective angst of the Yomim Noraim, Sukkot provides a joyous respite precisely, at least in part, because it celebrates the power of divinity and nature rather than human agency. We must prepare meticulously, but we have a clear instruction manual for doing so—and by dwelling for a week in a temporary structure that, even at its strongest, is precarious by design, we gain an appreciation for the limits of our abilities to overcome many of the challenges of the universe. There is something oddly comforting and calming in this: we know we have done everything we can, and the nature of our ultimate experience rests in the hands of the divine.

As we begin our third COVID-tinged school year we have lost much of this sense of comfort. The uncertainty remains, but the clarity of action has been replaced by a seemingly never-ending sequence of judgments and fatigue-inducing decision points. What restores our optimism, though, are the ever-strengthened sense of community that the pandemic has engendered, our 18-month track record of demonstrating that we can educate our students with enviable success amid the risks and distractions of the pandemic, and our Jewish experience of praying as we do on Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret: with faith that while not everything is in our hands, we are as prepared as we can be, and we will ultimately be blessed with health, joy, learning, nature’s full bounty, and sukkat shalom.

Chag samei’ach!


Michael A. Kay, PhD, is head of school at The Leffell School.

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