I hate camping. The thought of sleeping on the hard ground among the bugs makes my skin crawl. And so, as you can imagine, Sukkot was never my favorite holy day. To sleep outside in the equivalent of a poorly designed tent that has no floor and hardly any roof, among the spiders and raccoons and God knows what else? Hardly.
Furthermore, I am completely incompetent when it comes to anything mechanical: I don't know which end of the screwdriver one is supposed to hold. All my early attempts at constructing a sukkah met with disaster. From then on, I preferred to smell an etrog and shake a lulav within the comfort of my home or sanctuary. But to actually build a sukkah, let alone sleep in one-not a chance! And so I found myself asking: How could I find meaning in Sukkot without a sukkah?
Thanks to our sages, I found an answer. According to the Sukkot morning Torah portion, God commands us to dwell in a sukkah during this festival "so that future generations may know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt." (Leviticus 23:43) A dispute arose among the rabbis regarding the nature of those sukkot. Rabbi Akiva believed them to be genuine booths, which our ancestors built for shelter. But Rabbi Eliezer disagreed. He taught that the sukkot to which the Torah refers weren't actual booths constructed by human hands. They were the miraculous ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory that accompanied and protected the Israelites in the wilderness. Those clouds were a majestic manifestation of God's sheltering presence, guiding and sustaining our ancestors, providing them with the strength to persevere.
If Rabbi Eliezer is correct, those booths mentioned in the Torah weren't tangible dwellings at all. They were, rather, a symbol of our ancestors' faith. They teach us that the Israelites were able to gaze toward the heavens, see the beauty of the clouded sky, and know that God was close. That knowledge gave them fortitude and comfort and direction. Because God was with them in the wilderness, they were able to reach the Promised Land.
Rabbi Eliezer's teaching poses the following question for us on this Sukkot: When we find ourselves in our personal wildernesses, consumed by dark and frightening circumstances, unable to see a way out, where can we find those clouds of glory that reveal God's presence? Perhaps we can find them in the loving embraces of our family and friends, or in the serenity and clarity of prayer, or in the wisdom of sacred study. If we are able to reach outward to one another and, like our ancestors in the desert, gaze upward toward the heavens, we might just see those clouds and know that God is close.
By the way, I found a sukkah that even a mechanically challenged Jew like me can build. And this year I promised my six-year-old son that we would sleep in it. Wish me luck!
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in booths. (Leviticus 23:42)
My husband and I are buying our first house, which in our case is actually an apartment in Brooklyn. This process has dragged on for several months, and with each setback and hoop to jump through, we despair of ever getting settled in our new place. During this period of time, I have been thinking about the commentary I was asked to write for Torat Hayim on Sukkot and the mitzvah of living in a booth. Reading the sources and the various interpretations of this holiday has led me to think about the meaning of home in a new context.
In a piece about Sukkot, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writes the following: "One of my favorite Yiddish songs, which I sing during every sukah meal, is called A Sukele. It tells the story of a young girl who warns her father that the winds are heavy and the sukele is about to collapse. 'Don't be foolish and don't be upset,' the father responds. 'There have been almost 2,000 years of ominous winds, and our sukele has managed to prevail.'"
Rabbi Riskin's story reminds us that while a sukkah is fragile and vulnerable to the outside elements, it has been protected by the presence of God throughout many generations. It is easy to broaden this interpretation to suggest that, in fact, our lives are protected by God not only during Sukkot but throughout the year.
Remembering this during a stressful time has allowed me to focus on the excitement of the upcoming High Holidays, which will be shared with new friends in a new synagogue community. As I continue to struggle with the seemingly endless details of our move, I have tried to remind myself continually that while the physical space in which I will live might be in question, my spiritual home within Jewish life is not.
In order to reinforce that spiritual home, I turn to Torah. What are future generations to glean from the fact that our ancestors dwelt in sukkot? "That future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths." (Leviticus 23:43) I suggest that the holiday of Sukkot reminds us not only of the presence of God in our lives but also of the importance of the communal elements we choose to bring into our physical homes. Rabbi Susan Silverman and Yosef I. Abramowitz describe a home as something that is, in fact, created "through our surroundings, our actions, and our words." Tradition, ritual, and hospitality are central to living an engaged Jewish life.
As Arnie Eisen writes, "Sukkot commands us to construct Jewish space-which, whatever our surroundings, for eight days becomes a world.... At Sukkot, we build, because the only way to have order in a wilderness is to construct it there-which is also, of course, the only way that we, God's partners, can bring [God's] meaning to life in the world." And so this year, with our move to Brooklyn imminent as the High Holidays draw closer, I am reminded of the importance of creating Jewish space by having a Chanukat Habayit ceremony. As a close friend of mine who is a rabbi said to me when I told her about the connection I saw between our move and Sukkot, "Torah is life!" Perhaps she would like to come and help hang our mezuzah?
Questions to Consider
- What are the important elements for building a permanent home? Why?
- What are some ways in which we can remember the importance of our spiritual/communal home throughout the year, when we are not commanded to dwell in the sukkah?
Sources for Further Study:
Yosef I. Abramowitz and Susan Silverman, Jewish Family and Life (Golden Books, 1997).
Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts, Rituals for Our Times (Harper Perennial, 1992).
Sukkot Day 1, Leviticus 23:33‒44
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 930‒931; Revised Edition, pp. 827‒828
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 736‒737