RABBI JOSHUA RUNYAN
No matter where you turn this week — whether you're walking along a residential street in the center of Israel, traipsing through midtown Manhattan or strolling along the tree-lined streets of more than a few neighborhoods in suburban Philadelphia — you're bound to come across a few sukkahs, those curious-looking booths for which the current festival gets its name.
If it's daytime, you'll be doubly lucky, for it's almost impossible to inadvertently pass by someone holding a palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow branches and a citron together in a biblically mandated ritual that seems to defy explanation.
Indeed, there's no holiday more "out there" than Sukkot. From its odd customs to its very timing, the holiday demands explanation.
The Torah commands that the Jewish people "sit in" — meaning, "live in" — temporary structures for seven days so that "future generations may know that [the Lord] made the Israelite people live in booths" as they escaped from Egypt.
At its most basic level, Sukkot serves as a remembrance of the Exodus. In his Code of Jewish Law, the 15th-century Spanish sage Rabbi Yosef Caro identifies the "booths" of the Exodus as the clouds of glory that shielded the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians' arrows and a litany of hazards associated with desert travel. By living in an actual booth — by encompassing yourself, as it were, with a Torah command — you can appreciate the Divine glory that surrounded the Jewish people and met their needs.
However, that concept presents a paradox. The deliverance from Egypt happened during the Hebrew month of Nissan, during which we already have a holiday — Pesach — that appears to be more connected with the Exodus. Why not also have Sukkot then?
Look closely at a sukkah, and you'll notice a striking similarity to the huts that still pop up in some fields in Israel in the late spring and early summer. Built to keep out the sun, the structures provide much-needed shade to farm workers. The coincidence was not lost on 14th-century legal codifier Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, whose Arb'ah Turim formed the foundation upon which Caro's code was built. If Sukkot took place during Nissan, he reasoned, the world would view the booths as nothing extraordinary.
But by fixing the holiday in the month of Tishrei, when the rainy season begins, the Torah assures that the non-Jewish world will look in amazement as men, women and children leave the comfort of their homes to eat their meals beneath branches.
Sukkot's very purpose is expressed in its "taking it to the streets" character. Whereas Pesach is an inward affirmation of the power of the Almighty to bring deliverance to the downtrodden, Sukkot is an outward proclamation of Heavenly beneficence.
This is where the Four Species come in. Rabbinic sources identify the palm, myrtle, willow and citron as corollaries to four types of people. There are those whose good deeds match their scholarship; they have both taste and a pleasing aroma. There are those whose deeds fall short of their scholarship; they have a pleasing aroma, but no taste. There are those who are the exact opposite, and those who from time to time lack good deeds and Torah knowledge.
But on Sukkot, all divisions fall by the wayside. Five days after Yom Kippur, reveling in the forgiveness assured during that holy day, the Jewish people — young and old, great and small — take shelter in a hut to bask in the power of the Divine.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.