Rabbi Yehuda HaKohenThe author is a leader in the Alternative Action movement (www.alternativeaction.org). He also teaches at several Jerusalem institutions and is a frequent lecturer on American college campuses.
"The festival of Sukkot is a holy day whose joy and splendor we can feel only when we live in our beloved land, crowned with clear, turquoise skies pleasing to the eye and a pure, temperate, healing air, which together remind us of the hand of G-D, which brought us to the good and pleasant land of the Carmel, which renews in us strength, life and the hope that Israel will once again flourish upon it's open spaces."
– Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (Kol BeHadar)
The festival of Sukkot takes on an entirely different dimension when celebrated on our native soil. Jews returning to Eretz Yisrael can note the astonishing contrast between the holiday's observance in the Diaspora and its performance in our homeland. The atmosphere in Jerusalem is one of great anticipation where people everywhere prepare for the weeklong celebration. Many are outside with their families and neighbors building their own unique brand of sukkah. On nearly every corner, children sell the four species with a wide variety of etrogim to choose from.
Seeing all of the different citrons causes us to appreciate Israel's current situation in comparison to stories of Jewish life in foreign lands – generations ago – where Jews were sometimes unable to obtain etrogim at all. In such cases a person would not be held liable for neglecting to perform the mitzvah as it was above and beyond anything he could practically do. But during those difficult years, the commandment of taking an etrog on Sukkot never disappeared. As soon as citrons could again be procured, the Jews of that region were once again obligated to perform the mitzvah.
This is comparable to the Torah commandment of living in the Land of Israel. The moment that the mitzvah returns to our hands, it once again becomes our sacred duty to fulfill. When the Hebrew Nation was broken and scattered throughout the world, it was often physically impossible for us to return to our borders and we were not held accountable for neglecting the commandment. But now that there is a sovereign Jewish state over parts of homeland, Diaspora Jews are left without excuses for not accepting a free El Al flight to their new home – their true home – in Eretz Yisrael.
The central idea of the sukkah is trust in HaShem. The sukkah (whose flimsy construction makes it appear outwardly unfit even to be called a dwelling) is our tower of strength, protecting us from danger on these holy days. We must realize that it is not through the flimsy walls but through HaShem's Ideal that the sukkah becomes our shield. Our Torah decrees that during these days this structure shall be our dwelling, teaching us that true security lies in our trusting HaShem and knowing that no evil will befall us if we sincerely and wholeheartedly perform His Divine Will.
While some may offer rational justifications for remaining in the exile and ignoring the mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael (see Rambam Laws of Kings 5:12 & Laws of Marriage 13:19, Ramban's suppliment to the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot #4, Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 75:3, Ketubot 110b), these excuses stem from not understanding the inner message of the Sukkot festival – that Israel should trust in HaShem and follow His commandments, no matter how seemingly difficult this may be.
Although moving home to Israel can be both challenging and frightening, it nevertheless remains one of our most central mitzvot as only through our taking possession of and dwelling in Eretz Yisrael can we succeed in living up to our national mission of ushering in an era of total peace and bringing all Creation to a greater awareness of HaShem as the timeless ultimate Reality without end that creates all, sustains all, empowers all and loves all.