Sukkot: Both Then and Now

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Hag Sameach [happy holidays!] It’s a lovely day in the Hudson River
Valley- the trees are beginning to show incredible colors, and the
squirrels in my backyard are overjoyed at the all-you-can-eat buffet
I’ve just put out on top of my sukkah [I used cornstalks for s’chach,
the covering, with ears of corn still on the stalk].

A sukkah is, by definition, a temporary structure, at least partially
open to the sky, and covered with branches, leaves, boughs, or stalks-
some kind of natural plant covering. Aside from being beautiful and
fun, the sukkah is a mitzvah [commandment] of memory and reenactment,
as we are told in Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:

“You shall live in booths [sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel
shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I
made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of
the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God. ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 23:42-43)

We have other mitzvot of remembrance and re-enactment in Judaism; for
example, eating matzah on Pesach is a reenactment of the experiece of
eating “lechem oni,” or “bread of affliction.” What’s interesting
about the sukkah (actually, matzah too, but that’s another discussion)
is that it’s not entirely clear what is being remembered and
reenacted. Two famous rabbis, Akiva and Eliezer, of the early Talmudic
period, had a well-known dispute regarding the nature of the sukkah:
Rabbi Akiva thought that we build a sukkah to remember the actual
dwellings of the Israelites during the 40 year sojourn in the
wilderness, but Rabbi Eliezer thought that the sukkot were the “clouds
of glory,” or manifestation of the Divine Presence, which accompanied
and guided the Israelites along the way. (Cf. Shmot/Exodus 40:33-38,
for example.)

Of course, the problem with Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation is that the
Israelites are described as living in tents, not “booths,” in their
encampments; for example, in Bamidbar/Numbers 16, the story of Korach,
tents are referred to several times. On the other hand, Rabbi
Eliezer’s view- that God sheltered the Israelites in the Divine
Presence, like a sukkah- requires a certain leap of the imagination,
as it is not directly supported by the text, as far as I can tell.

However, both Akiva and Eliezer seem to be making a philosophical
point in their interpretation of the sukkah: for Akiva, when we sit in
the sukkah, we are to remember the hardships that our ancestors went
through, the lived history of our people and our dependence on their
sacrifice. For Eliezer, the experience of a sukkah is more
theological: it’s not so much about the faithfulness of our ancestors
as the faithfulness of God, Who was Present for them, and Who can be
present for us when we open ourselves up to spiritual awareness by
sitting in a reified symbol of that Presence.

By now you’re probably thinking: “but wait! this is a false choice!
it’s about both God AND history,” and of course, you’re right, and
that’s why the Talmud lets both views sit side by side. A Judaism
denuded of connection to the lived history of our people is an
abstraction, a mere faith, without the tremendous moral obligation
towards community that is at the core of both Jewish ethics and
experience. On the other hand, a Judaism which is only history and
memory tends towards guilt and nostalgia, both of which are deadly to
joy, vitality, orientation towards repairing the world, and a sense of
the Divine Presence in <our> lives.

So we need both Akiva’s sense of history and Eliezer’s sense of
spiritual experience to fully appreciate what a sukkah is. Even
better, when we can feel both things at once- the “then” and the
“now”- then our sukkah is more than a remembrance, and more than a
commandment, but is rather a connection to the past, a grounding in
the present, and an orientation towards the future, which is, after
all, a definition of Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,


PS- our first link is towards a page of resources and learning for
Sukkot, and our second link is for the Sukkot Torah readings:

For family discussion, the first page has a study guide and questions,
and the second link has a GREAT rendition of the Talmud on various
kinds of permitted and forbidden Sukkot, with pictures and Dr.
Suess-ical rhymes:

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