The relatively brief Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot offers a quick summary of the who, what, when, where, and why of this sacred celebration-the third and final observance in the cycle of three pilgrimage festivals. Since it is linked to the harvest, its tangible symbols include cuttings from four distinct types of trees and small booths (sukkot) that are used for resting in the harvest field. The Torah states that these sukkot are to be assembled annually, once the people are settled in the Land and are growing crops on a regular basis. This practice, the text explains, will help to educate successive generations of Jews, descendants of the Israelites freed from Egyptian slavery, about God's active, distinctive role throughout their history-whether redeeming them from bondage or causing their "bread" to be brought forth from the earth.
For thousands of years, therefore, Sukkot--like all the holidays ordained in the Torah--has functioned on a number of levels. The agricultural underpinning is a nostalgic, humble reminder for Jews, the vast majority of whom are no longer farmers, that we are ever dependent on the cycle of life and growth that yields food for nourishment. However carefully one plants and cultivates, the growing cycle is still miraculous and in certain ways beyond our influence. As we celebrate in sukkot, we are reminded of the makeshift harvester's shelters and the makeshift dwellings used by the Israelites as they "wandered" for forty years from Egypt toward the Promised Land. Both are reminiscent of God's providence.
Additionally, Sukkot provides a joyous display of hope and spiritual relief following the solemnity that pervades the Day of Remembrance (Rosh HaShanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). As described in the Mishnah and Talmud, Sukkot in the days of the Second Temple featured a huge pageant in which torches and the great lamps in the Temple courtyard illuminated a water libation ceremony that welcomed in the rainy season. Sukkot was thus a double celebration-an offering of thanks for the bounteous produce of a season just ending and an official start to the new growing cycle.
The Torah also enumerates the details of constructing a sukkah, including the branches used as roofing material atop the structure, the s'chach, which must provide the right amount and lack of coverage to purposefully allow a glimpse of the heavens above. The awe-inspiring display of God's masterful, creative power as the backdrop to the fruits of our labor hanging from the fragile roofing offers a striking visual contrast for us to contemplate.
The explicit messages of Sukkot's various components lead to one conclusion: God is in charge and guides the functioning of the natural order. Furthermore, God is specifically active in the unfolding history and experience of the Israelite/Jewish people. Whether presenting us with challenges or comfort, blessing or curse, God's will and the resulting circumstances of our existence provide the framework of our lives, the foundation over which we shape our reality. And God does not shirk from the responsibility of providence. God is never "absent" from the scene, as other cultures have often described their deities. (According to tradition, the Shechinah, too, was exiled along with our ancestors to Babylonia.) The quality of our lives is conditioned by our own fulfilling of the covenant (b'rit) we uphold with God, but God's presence and role as Creator and Ordainer of the natural order is completely unconditional and unfaltering.
Sukkot offers us one of the most comprehensive opportunities for celebration and observance, meriting it the appellation of hechag, "the holiday." We use all of our faculties to experience this holiday, bringing together our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our senses in order to fulfill its mitzvot. Also, our daily routines are adjusted to fit the weeklong observance of "living" in the sukkah. It is an easy holiday to share with Jews of all generations. For some, it is straightforward in its commandments to observe and to "do" Sukkot. For others, it is an adventure in creating a new habitat for a short period of time.
It is interesting to observe that twice in the Torah portion for this holiday, God prescribes not only a course of action, but also a rationale: "as a law for all time, throughout the ages," (Leviticus 23:41) and "in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 23:43). Twice God gives a reason for the commandments and speaks of future generations who will need to be taught some of the same lessons as their ancestors.
Those descendants are us. We can choose to interpret that this entire system was created just for us, our children, and their children. We can choose to interpret that God created a structure for us to remember our past and humble beginnings so that our present and future may be put into perspective and balanced appropriately. What a focused and helpful lesson this is for us in times of confused morals, disproportionate wealth, and unbalanced values.
Therein lies the paradoxical lesson: Sukkot reminds us about our dependence on God, even while inspiring us to emulate God's role where appropriate in our relationship with others who are dependent on us. God provides for all types of people, assuring that all life is sacred. We gather the four species of the lulav and etrog to remind us to do the same. God is the ultimate role model for us as community leaders and as parents. There is a defined strength, unconditional love and commitment, and focused dedication of behavior that reflects the values of our people. Taking responsibility for our own actions leads to the ultimate fulfillment of life: to prepare the next generation to emulate the completeness of God's creations.
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