What does the sukkah represent? A Shalom Hartman Institute fellow offers explanations from the Torah and various scholars.
The sukkah, even in the Torah, seems to straddle two different ecosystems: the desert and the settled agricultural land. Both are alien to our contemporary urban and suburban lives, but they still offer metaphors for life.
What does the sukkah represent: Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) or the desert? An agricultural structure for the harvest in the field, or a nomadic shelter in the desert? The era when Jews were farmers celebrating the end of the harvest season, or when Jews were refugees from Egypt wandering the desert during the Exodus? The achievement of material prosperity, or the perennial exposure to the vicissitudes of dependence?
The Torah weighs in on the side of desert consciousness, reliving transitions, being on the move, and hence, feeling how exposed we are to the shifts in autumn weather and how much we rely on Divine grace:
“You shall reside in sukkot for seven days; every citizen of Israel shall reside in sukkot, so that for generations you will [remember and] know that when I took the children of Israel out of Egypt, I settled them in sukkot [in the desert before reaching Eretz Yisrael]. I am Adonai your God.” (Leviticus 23:22-23)
Eating and sleeping in a sukkah without the special consciousness it is designed to provoke misses the point.
What exactly do we need to remember? Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (“Rashbam”), a grandson of Rashi, wrote in 12th-century France in his commentary on the verses cited above that we must remember what Moshe told us before entering the land of Israel and becoming land owners and farmers:
“Remember the whole trip that God took us on through the desert…with all its suffering and hunger when we were dependent on manna [from heaven] … So that we should know that human life does not depend on bread [that we grow ourselves] alone, but on God’s word does human life depend.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
This is the reason, Rashbam says, that God set the holiday of Sukkot during the season when we gather the produce of the grain and the grapes, so that we would have to leave our homes, which are overflowing with everything good, and sit in the desert dwellings of landless refugees. Otherwise, we might forget that the land itself is God’s gift, and instead think that “my power and the strength of my hands produced for me this great prosperity.” (Deuteronomy 8:17)
The late 15th-century Spanish commentator Isaac ben Moses Arama, who died in exile in Italy two years after the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain, transcended historical memory to find in the sukkah a symbol of universal human transience in this world. The sukkah is a temporary residence to remind us that we are all temporary residents on this earth, he said. We go out of our secure houses, precisely during the season when the weather turns cold and rainy, and move into a cramped little sukkah, with just enough food for one day, furnished with but a table, lamp and chair. Thus, we turn ourselves away from concerns with money, possessions and trading in produce, and learn to live with minimal needs. If we learn to live with less, without luxuries, then we will not feel want.
A new message of the sukkah emerges in the light of expanding world terrorism, marked by events such as the tragic destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City. Every house, no matter how solid, becomes a mere sukkah exposed to the storms of human evil. Life is ephemeral and yet every moment becomes precious. Accumulating material wealth loses its point, but whatever moments of meaning we experience are a mark of divine grace.
Noam Zion is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His numerous publications on Jewish holidays include: A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah, A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah, and A Day Apart: Shabbat at Home.