Leaning back in his relatively comfortable folding chair, David wraps his bulky winter jacket more snugly around his trembling shoulders, and with teeth chattering to the drum beat of winter, he lowers his face perilously close to the boiling chicken soup, inhaling its wholesome steam.
Leaning back in his relatively comfortable folding chair, David wraps his bulky winter jacket more snugly around his trembling shoulders, and with teeth chattering to the drum beat of winter, he lowers his face perilously close to the boiling chicken soup, inhaling its wholesome steam. As the schach (the sukkah's makeshift roof) rustles with the chilling October winds and his breath hovers in visible white clouds before being carried away on unseen wings, David wonders what is the crucial lesson that he is supposed to take to heart from his forced relocation to this temporary shelter. What message is Hashem conveying to us by telling us to leave the security and protection of our homes and go into the sukkah, exposing ourselves to the harsh elements? To understand this we must first discuss the source of this holiday and the significance of some of its complex and intricate laws.
The Talmud (Tractate Sukkah 11b) states that the huts in which we dwell on the holiday of Sukkot serve as a poignant reminder of one of two things - either the huts that the Jewish people dwelled in as a nation during our wanderings throughout the sultry tracts of desert after the exodus from Egypt, or of the Clouds of Glory which Hashem provided for us during our sojourns in the desert which protected us from the perilous weather, our powerful enemies, and any harmful desert creatures that threatened to sting or bite us. Every moment of our existence in that scorching desert was lived in a miraculous state. Our water was supplied by a mobile well, food fell from the heavens, our clothing never wore out, and our most powerful enemies were crushed effortlessly before us. Hashem's hand was a constant visible force.
But soon (if you call forty years soon), the Jewish people would enter their homeland, and Hashem's discernible hand and dazzling miracles would eventually become invisible to the non-discerning eye. For this reason, Hashem commanded us to exit our comfortable heated houses and come under the flimsy schach, to remind us that we are still reliant completely on G-d's mercy, just as we were in the desert. Despite the apparent security of our homes and our control over our fortunes, we are all, in a sense, living in sukkot (booths). We are protected only by the unceasing and loving devotion of Hashem, just as the Children of Israel were protected by the constant presence of the Clouds of Glory.
The Talmud states that although the roof of the sukkah must be made of flimsy earth-grown materials, the walls can be completely enclosing and made of any substance. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the dynamic leader of 19th century German Jewry, explains that the sukkah's walls illustrate this crucial concept - that even though the rich man's walls may be built of metal and the poor man's of two flimsy wooden boards, they both ultimately rely on the same source of protection - Hashem. When one looks around at the comfortable and reliable world he has created for himself, one is tempted to doubt Hashem's handiwork in all aspects of existence and instead attribute his successes and failures to his own strengths and abilities, to natural forces, or simply to luck. Through the mitzvot of the Torah, Hashem reminds us that all of these suppositions are false and that only through His great kindness do we posses the affluence surrounding us.
The Sefer Akeidah, a classic 14th century work on Jewish thought, teaches that the reason the schach must provide more shade than open space is to exhort us to trust in Hashem, represented by the schach, rather than place our faith in the numerous stars whose radiance fills the minute open holes and are a supposed source of luck. The Talmud also states that we may not use a sukkah that was erected thirty days before the festival, but rather we must build a new sukkah every year. Rabbeinu Bachya, a 14th century Torah commentator, explains that this reminds us that the world, represented by the sukkah, is not simply governed by natural laws, but is recreated every moment and is therefore new and not to be taken for granted.
Lastly, many commentators ask why it is that the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei was chosen, from all the days of the year in which the Children of Israel wandered in the desert, to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. The Rashbam, one of the great Talmudic scholars of the Middle Ages (and the grandson of Rashi), explains that it was at this time of year that all the harvests had just been gathered in the land of Israel, and amidst the abundant piles of grain the farmer might gloat and pat himself on the back with the assurance that he brought forth this grain by the sweat of his brow and the strength of his hands. Therefore, it is precisely at that moment that he must enter the sukkah and be reminded that it is Hashem alone Who bestowed upon him this blessing, whether it be through the rain or his good health, all amply provided by Hashem.
David leans back peacefully on his cold metal chair. He now hears the unheard voice of the sukkah calling out to him plaintively and reminding him to trust in Hashem. It is not by your hands alone that abundance has come, the Tishrei winds howl. It is not the immutable laws of nature, his newly-cut schach whispers. Nor is it the forces of luck, his overabundance of bamboo poles warns. And although these voices may be difficult to accept, they also provide the greatest of comfort and joy; that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, Hashem is constantly there, albeit in the misty background, protecting us from harm and showering us with His abundant kindness.
Ranon Cortell, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.
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