Sukkot: Jews in Booths

Five days after the solemnity and intensity of Yom Kippur, Sukkot, the festival of joy and happiness, begins.  This festival lasts eight days in Israel and nine everywhere else.  The Torah describes the festival as follows:

On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot, a seven-day period for God: On the first day shall be a sacred holyday when you shall not do any laborious work:…On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the harvest of the land, you shall celebrate God’s festival for a seven-day period; the first day is a rest day and the eighth day is a rest day:..

This festival is also known in the Torah as “Chag HeAsif,” the Festival of Gathering,  because it is celebrated at the time of year when the harvested produce is brought from the fields into storehouses and homes.  When a person gathers in the bounty of his land, he is naturally filled with tremendous joy and happiness.  This happiness could easily turn into self-aggrandizement; it could make a person full of himself and his accomplishments and distance him from God and from other people.  We might think that the appropriate antidote would be a period of fasting and repentance, however that would be directly contradict the person’s natural inclinations. Judaism does not deny or suppress human nature and instinct rather, it seeks to utilize them in positive ways. The Torah wants us to celebrate and be happy, but to channel that joy toward our relationship with the Creator and with other human beings.  We should use this opportunity to appreciate God’s benevolence as well as to share our good fortune with others. As we will discuss shortly, the Torah directs us to use the products of the harvest in the fulfillment of mitzvot. Thus we neither deny the physical world nor wallow in it, rather we elevate it towards a higher purpose.

Gathering in the harvest also takes in a spiritual dimension.  The Jewish people have just been through an intense period of introspection, repentance and prayer; the month of repentance, Ellul, followed by the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.  During this time we labor in the fields of spiritual growth. On Sukkot, we harvest the inspiration, the joy and the closeness to God that is produced by this period of repentance.  The intense feeling of joy on Sukkot, is the feeling of one who hears good news (forgiveness) when he was expecting the worst (punishment); of one who has been given a fresh start in life after making many serious mistakes.

Sukkot thus reflects the joy of completing a difficult job and celebrates both the conclusion of the physical harvest and more importantly, the culmination of the spiritual harvest.  Traditionally, Sukkot is associated with happiness more than any other festival. In our prayers, it is called “the time of our happiness” while in the Mishnah, it is referred to simply as “the festival.”  On Pesach, when we were taken out of Egypt, we were chosen to do a job. On Shavuot, when we were give the Torah, we were told what that task would involve. On Sukkot, we so to speak, come back to God and say “We have accomplished our task; we have brought in the harvest from the fields.”

In ancient times, a celebration took place in the Temple on Sukkot called the Simchat Beit Hashoevah “the joy of the house of (water-) drawing.”  “Water drawing” refers to the water which the priests would pour on the altar during Sukkot service which beseech God for rain during the upcoming winter.  On the evenings of the intermediate days of the festival, people would gather at the Temple. Torches were lit, music played, and the great sages, the elders, and the most pious of people would dance and sing, while thousands watched.  The water that gives its name to these festivities refers to rain, but it is primarily understood as a metaphor for the outpouring of Diving inspiration which can only be achieved when one is in a state of happiness.  The intensity of the joy that was experienced during this celebration was such that the Mishnah states:

One who has not seen the joy of the Simchat Beit Hashoevah has not seen joy in his life

In the course of Maimonides’ discussion of the laws of Sukkot and of the Simchat Beit Hashoeva, he states that the:

The happiness that one experiences in performance of a mitzvah and in the love of God Who commanded them is a great duty.

One of the commentaries on Maimonides’ writings explains that this is a fundamental component in fulfilling all the commandments of the Torah:

The idea is that one should not fulfill the mitzvot because they are obligatory and because he is forced to do them.  Rather he must do them and rejoice in performing them, and should do that which is good because it is good.  He should choose the truth because it is true. The effort should be trivial in his eyes, and he should understand that it is for this that he was created.  When he fulfills the purpose of his creation he will be happy.  For happiness due to anything else is dependent on things that are temporary and finite, but the happiness of doing a mitzvah and of learning Torah and wisdom is true happiness.

Today, Sukkot is still a time of tremendous joy when synagogues and yeshivas around the world, and especially in Israel, celebrate their own “Simchat Beit Hashoevah,” with music, dancing, food and discussions of the Torah.

The most distinctive feature of this festival, and the mitzvah from which it derives its name, is the Sukkah, the booth. The Torah writes,

You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period; everyone included in Israel shall dwell in booths: So that your future generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

The Oral Tradition defines this booth as a dwelling place consisting of at least three walls (made of any material) and having a roof made of unprocessed, agricultural products, such as branches and leaves.  It is an obligation to live in the Sukkah during the festival of Sukkot.  Ideally, one should eat, sleep, relax and socialize in the Sukkah just as one would in their home.

The significance of this mitzvah on the simplest level, is to remind us that God protected and preserved the Jewish people in the desert after He took them out of Egypt by reenacting this experience.  A broader historical perspective, offers us a deeper insight into the meaning of this observance. Passover celebrates the Exodus, which was the physical creation of the Jewish people. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, our spiritual creation. Sukkot celebrates the remarkable physical survival and continuity of the Jewish people, the result of ongoing and all encompassing Divine Providence.  Considering Sukkot in this light, some Sages of the Talmud explain that the booths represent not the Jews physical dwellings in the desert, but rather, God’s clouds of glory which surrounded and protected the Jewish people from the time of the Exodus until they reached the Land of Israel. Sukkot is thus understood, not simply as a reminder of a specific historical period, but rather, as an experience that renews our awareness of God’s relationship to the Jewish people throughout history. The desert symbolizes our exile and wandering, while the clouds represent God’s unceasing protection and care.The central text of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the Zohar, calls the Sukkah “the shade of faith.”   Sitting under the shade of the Sukkah, the Jewish people understand that they must not place their faith in the walls and roofs of their houses, or in any physical protection they might construct. We have learnt through many years of bitter exile, that our efforts only offer protection when they are accompanied by God’s Divine Providence which protects us.

Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, notes that the clouds of glory left the Jewish people when they sinned at Mt. Sinai and built the Golden Calf.  They did not return until after the Jews repented and were forgiven on Yom Kippur.  The date on which the clouds of glory once again encircled the nation was the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, which is the first day of Sukkot.  This explains why Sukkot is celebrated right after Yom Kippur even though it is related to the Exodus and might be expected to occur soon after Passover.  Sukkot thus demonstrates that God’s love for the Jewish people is just as strong after they have sinned as it was before. The clouds of glory were returned to us, even though our own actions had caused them to be removed because the bond between God and the Jewish people is eternal.

Jewish law describes the Sukkah as a temporary dwelling,  a status which informs many of the legal specifications for the Sukkah’s construction.  Leaving our permanent houses with solid walls and roofs to live in a flimsy booth with a roof of branches is a dramatic and unequivocal statement that the material world is not what life is all about.  By living in the Sukkah, we are declaring that the entire physical world is really temporary, and that the only things we truly possess forever are the soul and its spiritual accomplishments.  It was certainly within God’s power to build five-star hotels and spas for the Jews in the Sinai Desert. Why then did he put them in thatched huts?  Because he wanted them, and us, to understand that there is no permanence to the physical world, and that focusing all aspirations and hopes on material attainments; a house, a car, another house, another car — is pointless. By living in the Sukkah, we are bringing this message home to ourselves, not just as intellectual knowledge, but as an understanding that will impact our lives.

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