Did We Really Dwell in Sukkot?
September 24, 2010
We join together this Shabbat of Sukkot in the presence of this lovely sukkah, symbolic of the dwellings the Torah tells us our ancestors constructed in the Wilderness. We read yesterday in the Torah (Lev 23:42-43): “You shall live in Sukkot; all citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.” Does this mean that our ancestors literally dwelt in booths during our sojourn in the Wilderness? The answer is not as simple as we might think. “Leviticus tells us that we dwelled in Sukkot, but does not tell us what these sukkot were. The rabbis debated exactly what this meant. In the Sifra, the halachic midrash on Leviticus, we find the following dispute: “Rabbi Eliezer says: They were real sukkot. Rabbi Akiva says: the sukkot were the clouds of glory.” What we have here is a religious symbol, the sukkah, with two very different and divergent meanings. Let us take a few minutes to explore what the rabbis meant. Let us begin with Rabbi Akiva’s startling statement, the sukkot in the Wilderness were actually God’s clouds of glory. Why did Rabbi Akiva interpret the exodus sukkot as clouds?
First, sukkot are not generally found in the desert. They are built in fields for the protection of agricultural workers during the heat of the day. They are also constructed of organic materials, woods, branches, leaves, and foliage that are not usually found in the desert. Second, beside this one verse in Leviticus, the Bible never claims the Israelites stayed in booths. Tents are usually mentioned but never booths. Third, Leviticus says that God “made the Israelite people dwell in sukkot, not that the Israelite people built sukkot for themselves. There are two other considerations that influenced Rabbi Akiva. There are many instances in the Bible in which the word sukkah refers to cloud-covering. There are many times in the Bible when the word sukkah actually means “cloud.” In Exodus 12:5, the Israelites journeyed from “Ramses to Sukkot.” They depart from there escorted by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Rabbi Akiva interpreted Sukkot not as a place. He thought sukkot were the clouds within which the Israelites camped and which thereafter led the way in the desert. Rabbi Akiva was not alone among the rabbis in envisioning that God’s clouds of glory surrounded the Israelites on all sides. The clouds of glory provided the Israelites with God’s protection, presence, and love. There is yet another non-literal meaning of the sukkah to explore. In the prayer we recited tonight, and every night, the Hashkiveinu, we ask God to spread over us His sukkat shalom, his sukkah of peace. We are not literally asking God to construct a sukkah over us, so what are we really asking?
The sukkah also symbolizes God’s protective presence. The rabbis speak often of how the Shechina, God’s feminine presence, “shelters Her children like a mother protects her children.” At night, when we are most vulnerable, God spreads over us Her metaphorical sukkah, a protective and loving shelter of peace,.
Before we conclude, let us turn for a few moments, to Rabbi Eliezer’s statement, that the Sukkot in the Wilderness were real. For him and for many rabbis throughout history, the sukkah is a symbol of the transience, temporariness, and insecurity of this world. Jewish thought throughout the ages associates the sukkah with all things ephemeral and fleeting. In fact, this is why we read the Book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, on Sukkot. “This tradition has long puzzled commentators as Sukkot is considered the most joyous of festivals. The Book of Kohelet is a somber, harsh, even depressing meditation on the Jewish condition. It bemoans the meaningless of life and the shortness of memory. Kohelet appears to be the antithesis of the joyousness of Sukkot. If the sukkah represents the impermanence of this world and reminds us of the insignificance of material possessions, then the symbolism of Sukkot and Kohelet are analogous.”
So we have two images clustering around the sukkah- the sukkah as the symbol of God’s clouds of glory and the sukkah as a symbol of the impermanence of the world. These two images express two fundamental rabbinic ideas as expressed by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer. The rabbis thought that we “are under God’s protection, care and providence in this world, just as the Israelites were in their desert sojourn. Yet this world, our material possessions and all our worldly experience, joy, suffering, prosperity, satisfaction, and sickness, are transient. Only divine protection transcends this world and endures into the next. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, who lived in 19th century Germany, brought these ideas together when he wrote: “Not troubled and careworn, not sad and gloomy is the life which we lead in the sukkah built by the trust in God and covered by the love of God. Why should it worry you that it is only a temporary dwelling, that one day it will leave you or you will leave it? The walls may fall, the covering may wither in the storm, God may call you outside, but the sheltering love of God is everywhere and constantly with you and where it bids you to dwell, where it protects you, there you dwell, in the most fleeting and transitory dwelling, as calmly and securely as if it were your home forever.”
May God’s sukkat shalom dwell securely over us each and every day and night of our lives.