Tradition Today: Succot - Back to basics

A succa is fun, but what would it be like to live in a rather flimsy hut without a real roof for any length of time? Not so much fun.

Interior of a succa 370 (photo credit: Interior of a succa )
Interior of a succa 370
(photo credit: Interior of a succa )
Aside from the historical reminder found in the Torah that during the years of wandering God provided us with protection in the form of a succa, there are two ways of looking at Succot and its message. One is that the succa, with beautiful decorations and lovely furnishings, is a way of expressing thanksgiving at the bounty of the fall harvest, the appreciation of nature and of nature’s God. Succot was the source and the inspiration for the American Thanksgiving holiday.
Yet there is an alternative message as well: leaving one’s permanent home, leaving behind one’s precious possessions, entering into and living in a temporary hut that can hardly withstand the trials of time, is a way of making one aware of what it means to be homeless, to be poor, to be deprived.
A succa is fun, but what would it be like to live in a rather flimsy hut without a real roof for any length of time? Not so much fun.
What would it be like to live for years in a refugee camp? Many Jews suffered that deprivation in the past, and now there are people all over the world who face such a life. Just think of the innocent Syrian refugees in Jordan. Who knows when they will be able to return to their homes? What does that do to children whose lives are turned upside down? Yes, they have some temporary protection, but little more than that.
Moving into the succa is also a way of reminding all of us that we can go too far in seeking luxury. All we really need is a roof over our heads. For those who can afford much more, the succa is a reminder of humility and modesty, of doing with less. Remember when the president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, made do with a tzrif – a modest hut? When David Ben-Gurion as prime minister lived in a small house in Rehavia, when Teddy Kollek as mayor of Jerusalem lived in a small walk-up apartment, as did prime minister Menachem Begin? The succa asks us to consider the homeless of the world, including those in our own cities – yes, we have them in Israel, too. Some of them would be happy to have even a succa to live in. But one does not have to be on the streets to be deprived of a real home. There are so many families in Israel who cannot afford to own a home, who live in cramped quarters, doubled up because there is no housing for them.
There was a time when the government considered it part of its task to provide housing for all at affordable prices.
Look at the housing prices going up in Jerusalem. When was the last time you saw a sign that did not indicate it was “luxurious housing”? You don’t have to be poor to not be able to afford anything being built today. When we moved to Jerusalem 40 years ago, we purchased an apartment at a reasonable rate – nothing fancy, a fourth-floor walk-up – but affordable because the government made it available to olim. My children were able to buy basic apartments in the ’80s because there was a program of housing for young couples. What happened to all that? A Jewish society is a caring society – or should be.
But that was all before Milton Friedman became the undisputed prophet of economics in Israel. Personally, I would prefer the prophet Amos, who spoke about those who “impose a tax on the poor and exact from him a levy of grain” (5:11), “who defraud the poor, who rob the needy” (4:1), “who have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals... who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground” (2:6-7), as they “lie on ivory beds lolling on their couches” (6:4). This was the same prophet who said that God despises the festivals, the hymns and the music as long as such things happen, and calls for letting “justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream” (5:24).
These are good words to remember as we sit in our succa this year. ■
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).