By Rabbi James R. Michaels
The holiday of Sukkot has undergone a major transformation in the past 50 years. It has become very popular, even among non-observant Jews. Growing up in a small community in Upstate New York, the only sukkah I ever saw was outside my synagogue. If I had ever thought of building one on my back porch, my parents, siblings and friends would have said I was crazy, or perhaps I was taking my lessons in Hebrew school too seriously.
I hear similar stories from my contemporary colleagues, regardless of where they were raised. In large cities or in suburban communities, sukkot weren’t common. Today, one can find them anywhere Jews live. Many non-observant people like the idea of building a sukkah, and certainly many who are strongly committed to observance will build one or buy one of the many attractive kits which are available.
I believe the reason for this trend stems from what the sukkah symbolizes. We can find this in the basic understanding of why we observe the mitzvah.
In the Torah, Leviticus 23:42-43 states, “You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days, in order that to know that I [i.e. God] made the children of Israel dwell in sukkot when I took them out of Egypt.”
In the Talmud, Sukkah 11b records two ideas about the nature of these sukkot.
The more prosaic suggestion is set forth by Rabbi Elazar, who says that the sukkot of the wilderness were just like ours — temporary shelters. Traveling from place to place, the Israelites couldn’t erect permanent houses, so they created booths which could be assembled and dismantled in fairly short order. God’s contribution would have been that the people could find the construction materials regardless of where they encamped.
In the same passage, Rabbi Akiva suggests that the sukkot mentioned in the Torah were actually Clouds of Glory. According to tradition, these clouds surrounded the Jews on all four sides and above and below, to protect them from the wind, the sun, scorpions and the hot sand.
In other words, the clouds fulfilled a spiritual function, daily performing miracles for the Israelites during their long years of travel.
I think either explanation can help us understand the increased popularity of Sukkot. On a basic level, the holiday gives us the opportunity to enjoy God’s gifts. Five days after Yom Kippur, when we deny ourselves any sensory enjoyment, Sukkot allows us to indulge our senses. It creates a balance between the heavy task of atonement and Judaism’s encouragement to enjoy all of the physical blessings of life. And, of course, that can include sitting and dining with family and friends.
For some people, the sukkah fulfills a spiritual need. Performing the mitzvah while welcoming ushpizin (spiritual guests), saying extra prayers and elevating our everyday activities can bring us into closer awareness of the Shechinah — God’s abiding presence.
Questions for discussion
How does the holiday of Sukkot appeal to different members of your family? Can it have one meaning for your children and another meaning for you?
When do you feel God’s presence in your daily activities? Can building a sukkah near your home add to that spiritual sensitivity?
Rabbi James R. Michaels is the director of clinical pastoral education at the Charles E Smith Life Communities.