What a House Is

Yom Rishon shel Sukkot, Holidays Leviticus 23:33-44

D'Var Torah By: Thomas M. Alpert

Focal Point

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths 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, I Adonai your God. (Leviticus 23:42–43)

Your Guide

  1. Why do booths play such a major role in Sukkot?

  2. Why does Leviticus 23:42 repeat the commandment to live in booths, using slightly different words?

  3. Why is it important to mention that it was God who commanded the Israelite people to live in booths for seven days?

  4. If this holiday commemorates the Exodus, why does it occur after Yom Kippur rather than proximate to Pesach?

By the Way

  • The sukkah is a fortress of defense.... Man’s most modern weapons of destruction may breach the strongest fortresses with gaping holes and destroy thick metal walls. But neither they nor any other manufactured object can demolish the strong invincible wall of the [spiritual] Law. (“The Sukkah: Fortress of Defense” by Abraham Isaac Kook in The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology, edited by Philip Goodman, The Jewish Publication Society, 1973)

  • Most men appear never to have considered what a house is and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have. (Henry David Thoreau, “Economy” in Walden and Civil Disobedience, Penguin Books, New York, 1983, p. 78)

  • [The original booths] were clouds of [God’s] presence, according to Rabbi Eliezer. But Rabbi Akiva says, “[The Israelites] made actual booths for themselves.” (Talmud, Sukkah 11b)

  • [The Zohar, the principal Jewish mystical text, teaches that figures from Jewish history “visit” the sukkah as “guests” (ushpizin). Every Jew] welcomes the celestial guests.... In addition, however, the Jew must help the poor rejoice. Why? Because the portion of the celestial guests whom the Jew has invited belongs to the poor. (Zohar 103b)

  • [The Torah] does not say “in order that future generations may know that they lived in booths” but “I made the Israelite people live in booths.” So that those sukkot, or the homely stay enjoyed in them, or both must have the stamp of the special godly providence of which the festival-sukkot that are prescribed for us must have some corresponding reminder. (Samson Raphael Hirsch on Leviticus 23:43)

  • For in the end we are, we Jews, assirei tik’vah, “prisoners of hope.” We suffer with all who suffer;... we remember the winding way through the desert; and we know there is not only a Promised Land but also a promised time. (Leonard Fein, Against the Dying of the Light, Woodstock, VT, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001, p. 125)

Your Guide

  1. What does Rabbi Kook mean when he says that the sukkah is “a fortress of defense”?

  2. What would Thoreau think a sukkah can teach us about “what a house is”?

  3. How do Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva differ on what the original booths were? What are the implications of their differing answers? With whom do you agree?

  4. What does the Zohar tell us about helping the poor on Sukkot? How might you help the poor rejoice this Sukkot?

  5. What does Rabbi Hirsch say is the reason that God commands us to live in booths? What can you do to become more aware of God’s presence when you are in the sukkah?

  6. What does being a “prisoner of hope” mean to you?

D'var Torah

The home-repair season is drawing to a close in my part of the country, and I still have not fixed my roof. That omission weighs on me. I want to protect my household and my house; I think each of us does. So we build our roofs and our walls and try to live safely. But Rav Kook is right: That is not enough. Destruction can still come, whether by flood or by poverty or by airplane. Sukkot reminds us of the vulnerability with which we live.

But it does not lead us to the despair of destruction. Instead, it commands us to build a structure but to build it with understanding. We need to get to the essence of what we build, “to have considered what a house is.” On Yom Kippur we tried to reach the core of our spiritual selves. On Sukkot we try to reach the core of our physical world, which is the sukkah. And the sukkah, as the Talmud teaches, is both the actual booth and the reflection of God’s connection to our world.

During the rich harvest, we might tend to overvalue our accomplishments, which are reflected in the solid and sometimes lavish homes in which we live throughout the year. So, listening to Rabbi Akiva as well as the Torah, we set up actual booths—flimsy huts that stand in contrast to the shelters we build and take pride in during the year, whether they are shelters of land or of money. From these huts we share our harvest with the poor; we help them rejoice. We remember that the shelter we have this week is not so different from the shelter they have all year long and that they are not so different from us. Our ancestors, the ushpizin, knew this. Today, we remember our origins.

We set up actual booths, and, following Rabbi Eliezer, we touch something of God’s presence in our sukkot. We touch something as evanescent as clouds: We touch hope. We glimpse a promised time, after our repairs have been completed, when all our fellow humans will have enough of what they need to rejoice; when each of us will be sheltered in the open, under our vines and our fig trees; and when no one will make us feel afraid (Micah 4:4).

Reference Materials

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

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