Sukkot, one of the most joyous and enriching festivals on the Jewish calendar, begins on the 15th day of Tishrei; this year, Sunday night, Sept. 30.
The holiday, which continues for seven days, is known by a variety of names: Zeman Simchataynu, Day of Rejoicing; Chag Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, reminding us that our ancestors lived in huts or booths throughout their 40-year sojourn in the desert; and Chag Ha’Asif, the Feast of the Ingathering, since this is also a harvest holiday, falling at the time when crops were gathered.
Without doubt, the major symbol of the Sukkot festival is the sukkah, the booth or tabernacle. In Leviticus 23:45 we read: “I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” It is fairly simple to understand why our ancestors, in their journey to the Promised Land, had to live in these fragile, temporary dwellings. They were moving from place to place and had to be able to set up their dwelling places quickly and with relative ease.
It is less clear why we are commanded today to dwell in such booths during Sukkot. Why isn’t it sufficient to prepare special holiday meals, say the proper blessings, and eat in our homes?
In addressing this question, our rabbis and scholars have tended to look beyond the simple physical requirement that we eat in a temporary dwelling consisting of at least three walls and a roof – the roof not being attached to the walls – and have concentrated instead on the ethical and moral 1essons associated with eating in this structure.
Maimonides, for example, holds that the purpose of the sukkah and of remembering the days of the wi1derness is to teach us during our days of prosperity to remember our days of adversity. He reasons that we will thus be induced to thank God repeatedly and to thereafter lead a modest, humble life.
Another interpretation is voiced by the medieval moralist Isaac Aboab: “The sukkah is designed to warn us that man is not to put his trust in the size or strength or beauty of his home, though it be filled with all precious things; nor must he rely upon the help of any human being, however powerful. But let him put his trust in the Great God whose word called the universe into being, for He alone is mighty, and His promises alone are sure.”
Mordecai Kaplan, one of the 20th century’s most innovative Jewish thinkers, suggested that reliving their wilderness experience, in which life was purer and freer than what they later experienced in Canaan, “was bound to place the Jews in a frame of mind which enabled them to detach themselves from the order of life they had come to accept as normal and to view it critically.”
Pondering these various interpretations as set forth by our Sages, I have created a Sukkot fantasy, which I invite you to share. Let us imagine what would happen if certain people were forced to celebrate Sukkot and fulfill the commandment to dwell in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday.
Let’s look first at those who ignore the environment. Imagine the board of Exxon forced to abandon their air-conditioned or heated homes, cars, and offices. Might these people then recognize the interdependence of natural forces and the need to fight all forms of environmental pollution?
What about politicians and world leaders? Forced to leave their sheltered government offices, protected by thick marble walls and security guards and cameras, might these people, by eating outside with invited guests, as is customary on Sukkot, come into greater contact with their constituents and learn firsthand of their concerns?
Let’s turn our attention to those who champion a continued military buildup and the further development of nuclear arms. Forced to enter into the vulnerable world of a sukkah, might they begin to appreciate the concept of Sukkat Shalom – that ultimately, we are all equally vulnerable, and that it is only by pursuing constructive, not destructive, endeavors that true peace might be achieved?
How about those who ignore the plight of the homeless? Forced to leave the warmth of their dwellings, might they appreciate that, unlike the pious of past generations, we choose only to eat in the sukkah, not to live in it, even though this structure is much more habitable than the places now occupied by many living on our nation’s streets?
As to those who ignore their history, forced to eat in the sukkah and to celebrate the custom of the ushpizin – the invitation to our ancestors to join with us in the sukkah – might these people come to appreciate the heritage of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah and others invited each day, demonstrating the continuity of the Jewish people?
Finally, let’s imagine a sukkah filled with those whose actions divide the Jewish people. Forced to celebrate the holiday and gather together, as well as to gather together the four species comprising the lulav and etrog, might all Jews recognize in this, the Feast of the Ingathering, that we must emphasize those factors that unite us as a people rather than those that unnecessarily divide us?
Certainly, this fantasy gives us much to consider. May we all, celebrating Sukkot beneath the same sky, learn from this experience to enhance our lives and the lives of all Israel and all humankind.