Please don’t leave Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur without hangin’ out in a Sukkah. It would be like experiencing Passover but skipping Shavuot- i.e. going from ‘freedom from’ without going to ‘freedom for.’ Thankfully the flow of Jewish history, despite startling defections, seems to be moving toward more celebratory festivals related to nature, like Tu B’Shvat and of course Sukkot. A few years ago there was even a Sukkah building contest in the middle of NY city!
However, we know there’s more than just spending time in a gazebo like structure. For one thing the mandate to move out of our homes for a week comes when the rest of the world is ready to hunker down as the temperature drops in most places. Another curious aspect is that the original Sukkot were built when the Israelites left Egypt on Pesach, so why do we celebrate right after Yom Kippur?
One answer to the latter question is that Sukkot needs to come after we had been forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf when Moshe came down from Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets. (It’s as if doc G-d said, ‘you couldn’t handle the first prescription- let’s try another one🙂) Thus the power of Yom Kippur gets translated into a concrete (though made of plant material) expression of the important concept- ‘If one does Teshuva out of love, even serious transgressions can be converted into mitzvoth.’ I call this transformation the most awesome gift of a benevolent Creator.
When I was a teenager learning in a Jewish Day School, I came across Rashi’s commentary about the materials designated for the sechach- the roof of a sukkah. Rashi quoted the rabbis who said: ‘We use materials for the sechach with the cast away plants from the harvests.’ I had my first ‘mystical insight’ that I later read in other commentaries: ‘The sins that we cast off at Tashlich and Yom Kippur have now become the most precious components of a mitzvah that expresses G-d’s profound love for us.’ I think that’s why I love this holiday so much till this day- besides the fact that I was born on the second day of Sukkot.
So, in my eyes, there are multiple reasons for the joy of this holiday. Rabbi Hirsh talks about the contrast between the sukkah people and the roof people. In Hebrew the word for roof is ‘gahg’ which is the root of the word for Gog and Magog- the warring nations we read about in the Haftarah when there is a Shabbat on Sukkot. Rabbi Hirsh explains the Gahg nations refer to the materialists of the world who believe in the ‘solidness’ (as opposed to the solidarity) of the physical world and its rules, whereas the Sukkah people see the world and its materiality but also see beyond to a more heavenly source where the world is ruled by a divine supervising power. The world outside may be replete with dangers that threaten Israel and its Torah, but the Sukkah is a place of heavenly protection as it was in the desert when our nation was surrounded and led by clouds of Glory. Nowadays we may not see these clouds in our flimsy Sukkot but we still have the promise that we are not abandoned. Besides, the mystical writings remind us that on Sukkot in particular, there are seven holy guests called ‘Ushpizin’ that come to visit and support us. (Watch the movie “Ushpizin” for a special Sukkot treat).
This concept of being in the shadow of the Divine Presence is also reflected in the mitzvah of the four species. There is so much written about this, but my favorite teaching is from the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Shmuel. He cites a somewhat esoteric but straight forward idea. All other species of plants are under the guidance of a heavenly angel, who after the plant begins, taps the angel and commands it to grow. However the four species of the Etrog, the lulav, the hadas and aravah, are under the direct and continual guidance of G-d. Thus the message of both the sukkah and the four species is to look beyond the earthy existence of this world, to its divine source and influx. This will help you live throughout the year, with a link to Above, even when you are functioning on the most material plane. This is similar to the Yom Kippur image when the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the offering, ‘One above, and seven below.’
In a way, other seemingly contradictory aspects of this magnificent holiday point to a similar theme. We read or study the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which contains many apparent paradoxes. On one hand, we read, ‘there is nothing better than to eat and drink etc.’ and on the other hand, ‘everything is vanity, or more literally, vapor.’ In short, the resolution of these inconsistencies is that it depends. When material pleasures are used as ends in themselves, they are indeed, fleeting and ultimately meaningless. However when they are used for higher purposes, to fulfill G-d’s desire to sanctify even the most physical aspects of life, then the material itself becomes eternal. If the ephemeral beauty of flowers can give us pleasure, imagine how much pleasure G-d derives when we can step out of our egos and, in the famous words of William Blake, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower…’ This perspective can bring true happiness.
In fact, the Talmud speaks at length about an amazing festival that took place beginning the second day- a festival called Simchat Beit Ha’shoeiva- the joy of the water drawing. The sages say whoever has not seen this festival, has not seen joy in their lifetime! The festival consisted of music, juggling acts, and the elation you would see at weddings. What were they celebrating? ‘Merely’ drawing water that would later be poured on the altar into holes that would trickle down to the earth? What was so special about this celebration is discussed in many Jewish sources. The one that strikes me is the idea that you don’t have to do anything ‘fancy’ to celebrate moments and milestones in your lives. (Quite a different perspective from todays’ weddings and bar/bat mitzvot!)
Another more esoteric reason has to do with creation itself. On the second day of creation, there was a split between ‘the waters over the firmament and the waters below.’ Whether we’re speaking of physical waters as in the rain cycle between heaven and earth, or the gap between spirit and matter in general, the idea of a separation in creation warranted the lack of mention of the words ‘ki tov’ and it was good, for the second day. (Interesting that in contemporary society, Monday, the second day, is referred to as ‘Blue Monday- perhaps because of the psychological gap between a restful weekend and a stressful work week.) This specific separation points to the general idea that creation itself by definition and the concept of Tzimtzum reflects a concealment between the Creator and creation. The water model is reflected in the Midrash as having the lower waters ‘complain’ (like the moon does later) by saying ‘we too want to be close to heaven like the higher waters.’ G-d is said to respond, ‘You will become even more holy than the upper waters when you are poured on the altar in the holy Temple on the festival of Sukkot!’
The very first mention of Sukkot in the Torah is actually in reference to Jacob. When he returns home from Laban’s house, we read, ‘He built a house for himself, and for his flock (literally, his acquisitions) he built booths- Sukkot. What is the Torah trying to tell us with this unusual word here? Perhaps it is reminding us that our earthly possessions represent the ‘stuff’ of life, but not the purpose of life. And yet Jacob goes back across the river Jabok just for a few small forgotten jars! Could it be that he realizes that something is important in proportion to the intention for which it is used, not for its physical size or its material value?
We learn from the prohibition of chopping down fruit trees, that we are not allowed to wantonly destroy material substance. But why not, if from a perspective of spirit, as Kohelet had written, ‘All is vanity’?’ Because we human beings are meant to use this world and all it contains for something beyond our personal gratification. So returning to the idea that while the rest of the world is hunkering down under solid roofs with their deceptive security, the ‘Shade of Faith,’ as the Zohar calls the Sukkah, breathes a wind of eternal life under the flimsy ‘see-through’ branches over our heads.
May we feel a sense of paradise even when pine needles fall into our soup, and may we take that feeling back with us into our homes, as we realize that by no means is this physical existence all there is to life. As the touching song, ‘A Sukeleh a kleine’- a tiny Sukkah- goes: A strong wind once blew and threatened to topple a family’s Sukkah. The father sang to his frightened daughter not to be afraid. The Sukkah which represents the Jewish people has stood for thousands of years, and will always remain- until the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our days.