Observing Sukkot in Israel.
(photo credit: ANDRE BRUTMANN/JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVES)
Every nation has holidays, which usually mark some historical event. Jewish holidays also mark historical events, but beyond that, they contain some way of shaping our consciousness.
Succot, which is about to begin, has a unique and colorful character.
During this festival, we go out into nature and spend a week inside a succa, a temporary residence outside the home. It is customary to decorate the succa and make it a pleasant place to stay in. Another commandment unique to the seven days of the festival is that of the “four species” which we hold every day of the festival – the etrog (the fruit of a citron tree), lulav (a frond from a date palm tree), hadas (a bough with leaves from a myrtle tree) and arava (a branch with leaves from the willow tree). In addition to all these, we are commanded to fulfill a very interesting mitzvah on Succot: “vesamachta bechagecha” – “and you shall rejoice in your Festival.” There is an explicit commandment in the Torah to rejoice during the days of the festival.
Seven days of rejoicing. (The eighth day is Shmini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, which is a separate festival occurring immediately after Succot.) We express this joy throughout the festival with good food, etc., but it is specifically expressed in the celebrations of Simchat Beit Hashoeva, celebrated in every Jewish center and during which the masses celebrate to the sounds of music.
Here we should stop and ask: Why? What are we supposed to be happy about? Why is it that for these seven days, we are meant to forget about all of life’s troubles and be filled with joy? In order to comprehend the reason for the great joy that floods Am Yisrael during Succot, we must return to the verses in the Torah that talk about the Festival of Succot and read them carefully: “For a seven day period you shall live in booths... in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23, 42-43).
The essence of Succot is explained in this verse – that each generation should remember the fact that when God took Am Yisrael out of Egypt, He also made sure they would have succot, booths, to protect them from the heat of the sun.
Let’s go back 3,326 years, for a moment. Am Yisrael was liberated from horrible slavery in Egypt that had lasted 210 years. The nation goes free after the Egyptians suffer the 10 plagues in front of all to see. Seven days after the Exodus, the wondrous Parting of the Red Sea takes place, when the waters split into two and the nation passed through unharmed as the stunned Egyptian army looked on. Now the nation embarks on its journey through the desert in preparation for entry into the Promised Land – Eretz Yisrael – where it is slated to establish the Jewish nation’s independent and free state.
But on the way, a small problem arises: the sun beats down on the heads of the desert wanderers, bothering them. One might imagine that this would be a really marginal issue; the Exodus and liberation, and the establishment of an independent state, are events of such tremendous significance that the focus on those booths that shaded the heads of the people seems kind of strange. Is this really what was important during these great days? The answer is that this is exactly the point that the Torah wishes to emphasize. The Exodus and establishment of an independent state can be chalked up to the merit of the nation’s forefathers – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov – to whom God had promised a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. But God was interested in expressing His love for Am Yisrael, and love is expressed, as we all know, in little details. A loving husband does not settle for creating nice living conditions for his wife.
He also buys her flowers, and thinks of the little details that will make her happy.
For this reason, God concerns Himself with the hot sun beating down on the heads of the nation as it walks in the desert. Look how much I love you, He says to them in His special manner. Even during a great time as this, I am worrying about the little details. It is important to Me that your path to the Promised Land be easy and comfortable.
This love is what the succa reminds us of; God’s love for Am Yisrael, a love that is expressed in the little details of life, those that may seem less important. In order for us to remember this, we have to leave our homes for seven days a year and sit in the succa where we will remind ourselves and our children about the distant past; a past that is so relevant to the present and to the future of each and every one of us.
The Ari, (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the greatest of the Kabbala sages since the 16th century) wrote something interesting about sitting in the succa: The three walls that are the minimum required for a succa (two full walls and one short) symbolize an arm outstretched for a hug – two long arms plus the hand. When we sit in the succa, we are being embraced by God! It is no wonder, then, that on Succot, our joy erupts and overflows, uniting all the various segments of the nation and creating an incomparably special ambiance. Jews throughout the generations and around the world have lived under various conditions, some better and some worse, but for seven days a week they all entered a Divine “embrace” and became joyous and happy people.
May it be that this joy affects the entire upcoming year. May it be a joyous and happy year for the entire Jewish nation! The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.