Sukkot so often is associated with ‘doing.’ The first thing observant Jews ‘do’ after Yom Kippur, the most ascetic holyday in the Jewish calendar, is get back to work and build sukkot. Beyond the doing, of course, is much meaning that gives the holyday its character, power and appeal.
There’s a machloket (controversy) in the Talmud about what a sukkah represents. Rabbi Akiva said that it represents the booths our people lived in during the 40 years of wandering, thereby recalling the years of exile and suffering experienced by the Israelites who, despite God’s beneficence (per Rabbi Akiva), wanted to return to the Godless Egypt and attach themselves to the false physical comforts based in brick and mortar, as if there were any.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus disagreed saying the sukkah represents the ananei kavod (Clouds of Glory – i.e. God) that hovered over the people en-wrapping them with God’s self like a tallit, and providing them with food, water, protection, and safe passage in the desert wilds. The Clouds of Glory were a physical reminder of Divine-nearness that enabled the people to develop trust and faith in a redeeming God without fear.
We seduce ourselves into believing (per Rabbi Akiva) that any house, with its thick walls, gates and alarm systems, can guarantee safety. And so, the sukkah becomes our “house” during this season to remind us of our fragility, impermanence and the limits of the material.
Sukkot comes each year to break us of our illusions and to emphasize that real protection lies within God’s arms. This is the spiritual message of the sukkah, and it’s there that we live for seven days under the t’sach, God’s canopy, a sukkat shalom.
Our bodies are like a sukkah as well, a vessel within which the indwelling presence of God (i.e. the soul) abides. We know, especially as we age, that our bodies are not forever. They break down; we get sick and frail; and we die.
Our homes can so easily be knocked down by earthquake, tornado and storm, just as our bodies and the sukkah are subject to time’s vagaries.
The megilah (scroll) we read on the Shabbat of Sukkot is Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and it emphasizes this theme of human impermanence and fragility. Kohelet says: “Havel havelim amar Kohelet – havel havelim hakol havel!” – ‘Utter futility, said Kohelet, Utter futility, all is futile!’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
A better translation of havel is “vapor.” We feel it one moment, and the next it dissipates much like Abel, whose Hebrew name was also “Havel,” for he left no trace when his brother Cain murdered him.
Most often we attach far too much importance to things – our home is important – our job is important – certain possessions are important – we’re important – everything feels important because we’re attached to, identify with and treat our possessions and self-made identities as extensions and reflections of ourselves, but the truth is that over time nothing tangible or created by human beings is ultimately important – “All is vanity,” like vapor dissipating leaving no trace.
That’s the disturbing side of life, and Sukkot reflects ultimate truths about the limits of materiality and the eternal nature of the spirit. The other side of the holyday, thankfully, empowers us because tradition calls us to rejoice in the very things that we know are impermanent which, like us, are the manifestation of divinity too.
The Four Species
The arba minim (the four species), the lulav, etrog, hadas and aravah plants, represent different aspects of the natural world. They symbolize also different kinds of Jews, the Jewish people as a whole, the oneness of humankind, and God’s all-encompassing unity.
And so, in this z’man simchateinu, this “time of our rejoicing,” we leave our homes and return to nature and the earth. We become more aware of what’s around, above and below us, and we become even more aware of who and what we are.
Sukkot carries a deeply universal message. It’s not just for Jews – it’s for non-Jews too. We know this because in the Talmud 70 sacrifices were brought to the Temple during Sukkot, representing the 70 known nations of the world at that time (Bavli, Sukkah 55b). This festival is for the entire world, for everyone everywhere on the planet.
Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot is a triad of Biblical festivals celebrating three kinds of p’dut, redemption.
Pesach’s p’dut celebrates our people’s liberation from Egyptian bondage.
Shavuot’s p’dut celebrates our receiving Torah.
And Sukkot’s p’dut celebrates our redemption from ourselves, especially from the finitude and impermanence of our lives.
In Psalms (130:7-8) we read:
Yachel Yisrael el Adonai
Ki im Adonai ha-chesed
V’har’beh i-mo p’dut;
V’hu yif’deh et Yisrael mi kol a-vo-no-tav.
O Israel, hope in God
For with God there is steadfast kindness
And great redemption is with the Eternal;
And God will redeem Israel from all its wrongs.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach.