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One of the most colorful and engaging festivals of the Hebrew calendar is Succot, the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles - and in the difference between these two translations lies the major issue of this commentary.
There is a great deal of pageantry in actually building and living in a miniature dwelling for seven days (or eight, in the Diaspora): the earthy greens and yellows of the vegetative ceiling (s'chach) through which we must be able to see the stars, the flimsy, magnificently decorated walls emblazoned with fruits and vegetables, colorful depictions of Holy Temple celebrations and future expectations, and the benign portraits of and/or biblical quotations about our special succa guests - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David (and nowadays many add our four matriarchs as well as Miriam, Zipporah and Deborah).
Even when we lived back in America, my children looked forward to Succot more than any other holiday - despite the interrupting rains, cold winds and even snow we had to suffer when attempting to celebrate the Israeli harvest festival in Manhattan.
But what is the real symbolism of the succa? What is it that we are attempting to recreate? The sages of the Talmud engage in a fundamental dispute, with Rabbi Akiva maintaining that the succa represents the actual huts or booths our ancestors set up in the desert, and Rabbi Yishmael arguing that it recalls the clouds of divine glory and rays of divine splendor which encircled the Israelites during their sojourn (B.T. Succa 11b); Akiva would call it the Festival of Huts (or Booths) and Yishmael the Festival of Tabernacles (divine sanctuary).
The difference isn't merely theoretical: Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik (known as the Brisker Rav) maintains that the commandment of succa must be performed with specific intention, since the Bible enjoins us "to dwell in the succa for seven daysâ€¦ in order that your future generations shall know [and understand in a precise manner] that I [the Lord] enabled the Israelites to dwell in succot when I took them out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:42,43).
So what are we re-experiencing in our succa? Is it the makeshift huts of our wanderings through the deserts of our various exiles - despite which we managed to survive - or the majestic and impregnable Divine fortress which encircled us throughout the desert experience?
Is the succa a hut or a tabernacle?
Fascinatingly, the official Codes of Jewish Law, the 16th-century Shulhan Aruch compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo, decodes the issue: "'You shall dwell in succot for seven daysâ€¦ because I enabled the Israelites to dwell in succot': these are the clouds of glory which encompassed them so that they would not be smitten by the dry heat and sunâ€¦"
There is certainly a logic to this decision, since our legal code goes on to legislate that "one who is uncomfortable is freed from the obligation of dwelling in a succa," which covers such things as wind or flies making it impossible to sleep there, or rain spoiling the soup you are about to eat in the succa.
Now generally speaking, discomfort is not a valid reason for exempting an individual from a mitzva. I have never heard that a person whose eardrums are troubled by the loud music at weddings need not perform the commandment of helping a bride and groom rejoice! Therefore there must be something intrinsic to the succa which makes it incompatible with discomfort. If the succa symbolizes the desert booth, there must certainly have been uncomfortable invasions by desert creatures and a pounding sun which would make sitting there intolerable; nevertheless, this is how the Israelites lived for 40 years. Only if we maintain that the succa expresses Divine clouds of glory, which would obviously have been impervious to any foreign element, would it make sense to rule that one who is uncomfortable need not sit in a succa today. Hence, logic dictates what we are re-experiencing the Divine clouds of glory and not the desert huts.
I would argue, however, that perhaps the Talmud is teaching us another lesson entirely. The succot in the desert were actual huts, temporary dwellings whose occupants were vulnerable to all the hazards of desert living. However, a sense of security depends much more on the spirit than on facts on the ground. Since the desert generation felt they were living under Divine protection - that the God who had freed them from Egypt was still watching over them - they felt themselves encompassed by rays of divine splendor and became impervious to discomfort. I believe this is the message of the Zohar: "It was taught to the people of the world that anyone who has a share in our holy nation and our holy land will dwell in the shadow of Divine faith and receive the sacred guests who will bring joy in this world and the world to come" (Emor, 2 78). Whether your succa is a makeshift silo or a rooted sanctuary depends on whether or not you feel that your nation and land are under the loving protection of the Divine, come what may.
It is told that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev would sit in the succa and continue to eat, sing and study Torah during the worst rainstorms. One of his disciples cited the Shulhan Aruch: "If rains fall, one must [leave the succa and] go into the houseâ€¦ Anyone who is freed from the commandment of succa [because he is uncomfortable] and still does not leave it will not receive any reward; he is considered a commoner (Greek, idiot)" (Orah Haim 639)
Responded Rabbi Levi Yitzhak: The rule which you cited does not apply to me. I don't feel even the slightest discomfort. Indeed, anyone who can dwell within the divine 'rays of splendor' and still feel uncomfortable is truly a commoner!"
Perhaps the deepest message of the succa is that true joy and comfort stem not from a fancy residence, but rather from familial togetherness under the protection of a loving God. As the Talmud teaches: "When our love was strong, we could lie on the edge of a metal implement and there was sufficient room; now that our love is no longer strong, a bed of 60 cubits is not large enough." (B.T. Sanhedrin 7a).
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.