The holiday of Sukkot that we are celebrating this week centers on the Sukkah, the fragile structure with three walls and a roof of leaves and branches in which we eat, rest, study and even sleep during the holiday. The Torah teaches us that living to the extent possible in the Sukkah is the primary observance of Sukkot, since even the name Sukkot is just the plural of Sukkah.
But, like most Jewish symbols, the Sukkah has more than one meaning. I want to mention just three of the meanings that the Sukkah can hold for us.
First, the Sukkah reminds us of the story that our ancestors wandered in the wilderness for 40 years between the Exodus from Egypt that we celebrate on Pesach and the Israelites’ entry into the land of Canaan.
The sukkah thus fits Sukkot into the narrative of the other two festivals. We were set free from Egypt on Pesach. Then we journeyed to Mount Sinai and received the Torah, a moment that we recollect and re-enact on Shavuot.
Finally, we wandered in the wilderness, living in booths, until we became a settled people in our own land. Living in the Sukkah replicates the experience of hardship that our ancestors lived through, dwelling as nomads for 40 years. In explaining the requirements for a Sukkah, the Mishnah teaches us that it is a “not-house,” a flimsy structure that goes against much that we expect of our homes.
By living in the sukkah, then, we re-experience what our ancestors went through as they were deprived of the protection of permanent dwellings in the wilderness. A sukkah is a not-house.
Second, the sukkah can be seen as a symbolic representation of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which the prophetic readings for Sukkot remind us was dedicated on Sukkot. The sukkah is an echo of the divine habitation that was once the center point of Jewish life.
The Temple was supposed to be a “permanent” dwelling place for God, superseding the Tabernacle in the wilderness that moved from place to place.
The sukkah, then, is an ephemeral remnant of that “permanent” dwelling place. When we build a sukkah, we are seeing the shadow of the place that was once the central point of interaction between humans and the divine. The sukkah is an echo of a house, “the House,” the Temple in Jerusalem.
Third, the sukkah can be seen as a symbol of divine protection. We speak in our prayers of a “Sukkat Shalom,” a Sukkah of Peace that we ask God to spread over all of us.
When we dwell in the sukkah, we can feel that we are sheltered in God’s presence. We have the protective covering of divine care, rather than feeling naked and exposed below the sky. The experience of living in the Sukkah emphasizes the continuous divine protection and connection that we have seen from our times of wandering in the wilderness through the present day. The sukkah is a spiritual house, a home for the soul.
So which of these meanings of the sukkah is the “real” one, the “right” one? We are lucky that Jewish tradition teaches that there can be more than one right answer to any question. All of these meanings of the sukkah are present in it and available for us to explore. It is up to us to go through the experience of dwelling in the Sukkah to make its meaning our own.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected].