Judaism: The Reality of the Sukka
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What does the Torah intend for the experience of sitting in a Sukka to mean to us? Vayikra 23 tells us: “Sit in a Sukka-- so that all generations will know that I Hashem put Bnei Yisrael in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt.” But this only raises the question: When exactly did Bnei Yisrael live in sukkot? And so what if they did live in sukkot?
There is a very old dispute about just this question-in the desert, what type of sukka did the Jews dwell in? Rabbi Eliezer tells us that the desert sukkot were in fact the 'Clouds of Glory'. Rabbi Akiva says quite plainly that in their desert travels the Jews actually resided in huts.
Ramban (Lev. 23:43) elaborates on Rabbi Eliezer: The Jews in the desert were not left weak and vulnerable by Hashem, they were protected by the Hashem’s clouds. The Midrash tells us that the clouds surrounded Bnei Yisrael on all sides as well as hanging above them for shade, killed snakes and scorpions and burned up bramble and thorns, flattened out hills and valleys, and cleared a straight path for the Jews to follow in the wilderness.
Ramban explains that in the beginning of the summer, Hashem commands us to remember the Exodus itself, and in the beginning of the rainy season, Hashem has us remember the miracle that sustained the Jews in the desert.
Rashbam (Lev. 23:43) the ‘pashtan’ disagrees. Following Rabbi Akiva, he believes that in the desert the Jew lived in simple huts, not clouds. So why dedicate a holiday to recall this? The fall is harverst time—and the Jews celebrate by gathering in grain and grapes, their homes filled with goodness. In this time of joy, the Torah sees danger- landowners should not retire to their homes and say in their hearts כחי ועוצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה- ”My strength and the power of my hands has delivered to me this wealth and success.” (Deut 8:17). So every year at this time, Hashem has us leave the security of our homes and move into temporary huts. We relive the desert experience when we were vulnerable and weak and completely reliant upon Hashem. And we refresh our hearts with the understanding that it is our relationship with Hashem that gives us the strength to find success in our lives.
In these opposite perspectives of the desert experience we find two paths to the same destination: refreshing our relationship with Hashem and reminding ourselves of the real importance of faith and covenant. In Rabbi Eliezer's model of ‘Anenei Kavod’ - Clouds of Glory, entering a sukka represents stepping into the warm and nurturing protection of Hashem's arms.
The halakha, though, follows Rabbi Akiva - sukkot are meant to be temporary structures. We leave the protections of our safe and secure homes, to step out into huts in the wilderness, reminding ourselves that our wealth and success should not change us, should not separate us from the true source of our strength and the ultimate tenuousness of our own strength.
For us, Rabbi Akiva develops a compelling perspective on Torah va'Avodah - we believe deeply in work and in the power of our own hands, but along with this comes a danger of losing perspective. The experience of the chag of Sukkot is a yearly refresher that while we work to support ourselves, in the final analysis, our strength comes from Hashem: הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ, לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל!