The Gan and the Sukkah: On Choosing a Temporary Home

These past few weeks I have been preoccupied with trying to choose a Gan for our daughters for next year. I want to find a place where they will feel loved and stimulated, but it also needs to be a place that is within reasonable walking distance from our home and that allows easy access to the wide double stroller in which I transport our twins all over the city. As I walk from one potential Gan to another, examining the physical spaces and chatting with the various caretakers in charge of each, I listen to shiurim about Masekhet Sukkah in an effort to keep up with daf yomi. As we work (and walk) through the first chapter, which is about the structure of the Sukkah, I find myself thinking about all the ways in which an appropriate Gan is similar to a kosher Sukkah, both in its physical properties and the intangible aspects that are so much more difficult to measure and gauge.

            For one, a Sukkah is intended as a temporary home reminiscent of the huts in which the Jews lived during their sojourn in the wilderness. As Rava says on the first page of the tractate, “The Torah says to leave your permanent home for seven days and live in a temporary dwelling place” (2a). As such, a Sukkah should not have the features of a permanent home; it is meant to be something constructed specifically for the purpose of the holiday. Likewise, a Gan is intended to be only temporary, a place where our girls can dwell from 8am-3pm five days a week. It is no substitute for their permanent home; the cribs will not be as comfortable (most likely they will sleep on mattresses on the floor); they won’t have all their favorite books and toys there; and no matter how caring the Ganenet is, she will be no substitute for two loving parents. At the same time, though the Gan is not permanent, it nonetheless must be a place where they are comfortable eating and sleeping, which is true of the Sukkah as well. And so I inquire about where the kids sleep, and for how long, and who cooks the food, and whether the kids are spoonfed or are expected to feed themselves.

            Rava’s statement that the Sukkah must be a temporary structure appears in a context of the Talmud’s discussion of the maximum height of the Sukkah, which the Mishnah sets as 20 amot. A Sukkah cannot exceed a certain height, in much the same way that good Gan should not try to involve kids in activities that are beyond their capabilities. I am looking for a Gan which engages the kids with age-appropriate books and games, while also giving them space to move around freely. Like a Sukkah that is less than seven by seven tefachim and hence too small to be kosher, I’d like to find a Gan with a nice yard so that the girls have the space to roam freely. The physical space should keep them secure and enclosed and protected from the elements, like a Sukkah that needs at least two walls and a little bit of a third. But they should also be able to lift their heads up and see all the way to the stars, and to reach for them.

            In addition to specifying the Sukkah’s maximum height, the opening Mishnah of tractate Sukkah also stipulates that a Sukkah must have more sun than shade. Although the Sukkah is covered by branches or pieces of wood known as skhakh, the light must still be able to shine through. Fortunately our girls have very sunny dispositions. Often I wake to find them standing up in their cribs playing peek-a-boo with each other, or craning their necks towards the door to watch excitedly as I walk in. They rarely cry unless they are hungry or overtired; as long as we keep them on a tight schedule, feeding them and putting them down for naps at the same time each day, they are generally quite content. I know that no matter where we send them to Gan, inevitably they will have their teary moments. I cannot expect them to leave my arms willingly every morning or to greet me with beaming smiles every afternoon. But I hope that I will find a Gan where there is, on average, more sun than shade, and more smiles than tears.

            And finally, a Sukkah is supposed to remind us of the clouds of glory with which God enveloped the Jewish people after we left Egypt. There is a debate in tractate Sukkah about whether the Biblical Sukkot were actual huts, or whether the term is metaphor for God’s protective presence (11b). But there is no doubt that the Sukkot we are commanded to build today are meant to offer both physical shelter and spiritual connection. Wordsworth writes of how all infants are born “trailing clouds of glory” which eventually fade as growing up takes its toll. Our girls are growing up, and they will continue to do so no matter where we send them to Gan next year. May they feel, no matter the physical space in which they find themselves, that they are always enveloped in a protective and loving presence, and may they continue trailing clouds of glory and flashing their beaming smiles for many years to come.