Torah instructs us to sit in the sukkah. We get this commandment just once, in Leviticus 23.*1* God announces the 7-day festival beginning on thefull moon, the 15th of the seventh month – this month, Tishrei. We are to harvest the bounty of the land, including gathering three kinds of branches and some not-clearly-identified fragrant fruit. And then – because we learn and experience best through action – we are told to dwell in booths, in sukkot, for seven days.
Nothing unexpected here. We're used to this holiday. We've grown up with it, done it all our lives. Seven days in our fragile little huts. Seven days trusting the impermanent. Trusting the permeable. Sometimes getting starlight through the unfinished and unattached roof, and sometimes rain.
We teach our children in Hebrew School that the booths are because of the harvest itself; in ancient times we would sleep in the fields in order to be near the crops, to get them all gathered before the rain could spoil them. But Torah, or God speaking in Torah, does not explain the sukkah as a harvest-time convenience. Instead, God says we should dwell in the sukkah so that "your generations may know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt." Sort of like our doing a Seder Pesach in order to remember the exodus itself.
At first we nod and say, "Okay. Fine. We do this because we lived in sukkot when we left Egypt." But then we can't help but wonder. "Really? We lived in sukkot when we left Egypt?" Never heard that detail growing up.
So we roll back the Torah to check, and it's not there. There are plenty of other details: the plagues, the doorposts, the rush out the door, the matzah. So at seder time we're reenacting details that Torah actually shares. But now here is God saying we should reenact something that Torah never even mentions.
As you can imagine, this problem was troublesome to the sages of antiquity, and their views about it are split. One school says, "Big deal. What does it matter that the sukkah isn't mentioned in the exodus story? It's mentioned now." To which some other smart aleck says, "So if it's part of the exodus, why are we building it in the fall instead of in the spring at Pesach?" To which the other side rolls its eyes and responds, "Because it was hot and dry when we left Egypt in the spring, and it stayed hot and dry all summer. No shelter was needed until the fall when it became cool and the rain began to come down." So we build them in the fall.
Now those arguing sages are just the ones who believed we really did build sukkot in the desert. But there's still another camp, so to speak. They are the ones who say that if Torah didn't say it, it didn't happen, and God must be referring to something else. They look back at the story to see how we were sheltered in the wilderness, and they find it. The Cloud of Glory.*2* God's own presence sheltered the Israelites as a cloud. God was the sukkah.
This maybe seems to us to be an unnecessary metaphysical step. So they built sukkot and Torah doesn't mention it. Big deal. But to this camp it is a big deal, and that big deal moved them to a different kind of understanding. An understanding that seems to me very wrapped up in the very structure of today's sukkah.
It is not buildings, not roofs and walls that protect us. It is God. That is why a is purposely shaky. It is to remind us that everything that we think of as solid, stable, dependable, is only so by the grace of God.
That would be a traditional, pious, believey way of looking at it.
But we might look at it this way too. The sukkah is a practice of impermanence. Our homes, our bodies, our lives – they are all sukkot. They are temporary. Flimsy. They bend with the wind. They get soaked with rain. We decorate them with the harvest – with our own harvests. All of our best features: qualities, talents, learnings. These adorn the sukkot of our lives. They are beautiful. But even they, like the gourds and apples and palm fronds on a backyard sukkah, eventually compost.
This is a joyful holiday. Still, I think its consistent through-line is about facing our impermanence. Sukkot's companion book is Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, where the author reminds us over and over that everything is hevel havalim – which we translate as "vanity of vanities." But it really means "breath". Ultimately, everything is breath. Not emptiness, but breath. Our lives are breath. Breath lasts but a moment and then is gone, back from our bodies into the fullness of the God-filled Universe. One day our lives, having lasted but a moment, will go back from our bodies into the fullness of the God-filled Universe.
The sukkah reminds us to let go. Not to think of our lives as built with brick or carved in stone. But temporary, unfinished and exposed to the elements.
But here is the beauty of our lives being sukkot and not fortresses. From inside the fortress you can never see the stars. You have walled out the Divinity that permeates us.
But from the sukkah of our lives, we can look up and out and around and down, in all the directions that we point the lulav and etrog, and remember that we are permeable to all of this splendor. We are sheltered under something much greater than palm fronds. We are sheltered under the Cloud of Glory that is not really a cloud at all, but the holiness that courses through the Universe, in part because we choose to see it there.
This is a profoundly beautiful holiday. And instead of looking at each other and saying Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, how beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, we might instead say, Mah tovu sukoteykha Yaakov, how beautiful is your fragility and your openness and impermanence. Mah tovu sukoteykha Yaakov. How beautiful are your sukkot!
*1* Leviticus 23:33-44. Deuteronomy 16 repeats the instruction to hold this festival, but without specifying a practice of dwelling in booths.
*2* BT Sukkah 11b; Targum Onkelos and Rashi on Leviticus 23:43. In Exodus 13:21 we first see God leading the Children of Israel through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God presences as a cloud for communication purposes in Exodus 16:10, Exodus 19:9, Leviticus 16:2 and elsewhere.