Our tradition gives life to journeying. The Torah affirms wandering.
Usually we think of the Torah in its discrete portions. We divide it up week by week. The reading of these five books can then be more easily completed in one year's time. On this occasion, think of the Torah in its entirety.
Early on, God promises that we will find fulfillment in a new land. God tells Abraham, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1) Abraham and his children and his children's children build a new life in a new land. For generations, our ancestors built a home in this Promised Land. But as everyone knows, they become slaves in Egypt until hundreds of years later when God rescues them and promises to return them to this land. The remainder of the Torah, actually the majority of the Torah, is about this journey home.
We wander for 40 years. Near the end of our holiest of books we reach the edge of the Jordan River. We can see the dream from the top of Mount Nebo. Moses dies. The Torah concludes. We return to the beginning of the story. We never get to the promise. We are forever wandering. That is the Torah's message. Our dreams remain incomplete. Our journey continues. We never arrive home.
No holiday better exemplifies this sentiment than Sukkot. In order for a sukkah to be a sukkah, the roof in particular has to be of a temporary quality. If your sukkah is so sturdy that it keeps the rain out, then it is not a sukkah but a house. That in a nutshell is the tradition's guidelines for these temporary booths. They are to remind us of our ancestors' journey.
They are to teach us that our lives are incomplete; we are forever journeying and never home. Perhaps we are told to live in these sukkot so that we might look at our houses from afar. Sometimes we can better appreciate our blessings when we look at them from a distance.
Years ago, I built my sukkah with a student who was homeless. I invited him, as well as my other students, to come to my apartment to help build the sukkah. He was the only person who accepted the invitation. At the time, we lived in an apartment in Great Neck, N.Y. Rather than calling me so that I could pick him up in Queens, where the subway train reached its limit, he walked to my apartment from the subway station. When I told him that I would give him money to take the railroad for his return to the city, he refused and insisted on walking back to the subway for his journey to the shelter where he lived.
Together on my apartment's balcony, we constructed my sukkah. As we lifted the boards and hammered together the sukkah, I remember thinking to myself: "I am constructing this sukkah to remind me how fortunate I am. For me, this sukkah is temporary. Its roof is flimsy. Its walls are permeable. It is less than my house. It is a reminder that life should not revolve around material possessions. For my student, however, it is far more than his house. It is not less than he owns, but more."
It was in that moment that I realized the true spiritual meaning of this Sukkot holiday. We might live in beautiful and comfortable homes filled with many wonderful things, but meaning can be found in a few boards and a flimsy roof. We can always fill our lives with more spirit.
All are homeless. All are wandering.
We continue to journey. We conclude the Torah at the edge of a dream. We begin the reading anew. We begin the telling of our story again, in each and every generation.
Lying next to my children in our sukkah we huddle together for warmth in the cool fall evenings. We peer through the roof and gaze at the stars. I tell them about Abraham's dream. I imagine that this was the same night sky that Abraham also saw and caused him to dream of the one God. I speak to them of our people's journey.
The dreaming continues.