Sukkot: Between the Forest and the Hearth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

I hope everybody had a wonderful and thought-provoking experience on
the Days of Awe- it’s kind of awe-inspiring in its own way that the
Jewish calendar asks us to go from the solemnity of Yom Kippur to the
festivity of Sukkot just a few days later. A Sukkah, as most readers
know, is a temporary hut or booth constructed under the open sky, with
some sort of plant material like branches or stalks or boughs loosely
covering it. The practice is to eat and learn and rejoice in the
Sukkah for the week-long holiday, making it our “dwelling-place,” as
it were.

In its most ancient context, it’s possible that the practice of Sukkah
originated in agricultural huts that farmers would put up out in the
fields during harvest time, in order to be able to work from dawn
until dusk. Sukkot is still clearly associated with the fall harvest
and our connection with the natural world, but lest one should think
that a Sukkah would be even better placed out in the woods, the Talmud
tells us not to build one under a tree, saying that “if one made a
sukkah under a tree, it is as if he made it within the house.”
(MIshnah Sukkah, 1:2)

The plain meaning of the comparison is that just as a Sukkah built
inside the house is not under the open sun, so a Sukkah under a tree
is also not under the sky and sun. There are all sorts of reasons
given why a Sukkah has to be out under the sky, but a common teaching
is that the Sukkah reminds us of our “exposure” and frailty in the
world- we are not as sheltered as we think from either the forces of
nature nor from the potential for upheaval in society. That’s why
building a Sukkah under a tree- symbolic of feeling sheltered in
nature- is like building one in a house- our more “civilized” shelter.

Human beings are subject to floods, fires, hurricanes, recessions and
more, but message of Sukkot is not esoteric: life is fragile, subject
to all sorts of changes and problems, but we rejoice anyway. Sukkot is
“Zman Simchatenu,” the “Season of our Rejoicing,” even if its primary
symbol- the Sukkah- is by its very nature something temporary and
rickety, like life itself. On Yom Kippur, we confront mortality and
resolve to use our moments wisely; just a few days later, on Sukkot,
in a very different way, we confront life’s unpredictability and
resolve to rejoice in every blessing given to us.

Hag Sameach,


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