Sukkot: Divine providence during a 'random' epidemic

Man is the divine masterpiece.

 A SUKKAH transports us back to the house we built for God.  (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
A SUKKAH transports us back to the house we built for God.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

Jewish holidays celebrate framing moments of national destiny. Passover recalls our liberation from Egypt while Shavuot re-dramatizes our selection at Sinai. By contrast, the holiday of Sukkot is more internationally flavored. Similar to Passover and Shavuot, it is tagged to a national memory – Divine protection of the Jewish desert travelers. 

Unlike Passover and Shavuot though, which recall particular miraculous moments, the “Sukkot event” unfolded over a 40-year period of protection in the wilderness. Furthermore, the deliverance of Passover and the revelation at Sinai each ended, whereas the drama of Sukkot – Divine supervision – continues. Divine providence is ongoing. 

Divine providence isn’t an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. God maintains and supervises His entire world in detailed fashion. The “clockwork theory” of the universe asserts that God created this world, but wound it up as a clock, which ticks along, with its gears governed by the laws of physics. The Sukkot experience roundly debunks this theory, affirming God’s direct management of the “machine of Nature” and his constant engagement in the affairs of Man. The heightened providence during those 40 years in the wilderness epitomized the “expanded supervision” that we constantly enjoy. Why do we deserve such supervision, and what are our reciprocal responsibilities, given our heightened level of Divine supervision? Studying these symbols of Divine providence – their texture and their dimensions – uncovers deeper understandings of God’s role in steering our lives.

 Ultra orthodox jews walk by a ''Sukkah'' (temporary dwelling), in the ultra orthodox jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem on September 09, 2021.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Ultra orthodox jews walk by a ''Sukkah'' (temporary dwelling), in the ultra orthodox jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem on September 09, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Revisiting the creation of man

Though the frame of the sukkah may be assembled from any durable material, the schach (roof) is more carefully regulated. The schach must be composed of natural and unprocessed materials. Synthetic substances or items that have undergone human treatment are each invalid. Essentially, the roof must be constructed with pristine substances, untainted by human hand. Surprisingly, the Talmud associates these criteria of a sukkah roof with the creation of Man. Prior to Man’s actual creation, an infertile and brownish Earth hadn’t yet produced crops or even vegetation. Without homo sapiens there was no need for flora, foliage, or food. In advance of Man’s arrival and in preparation for his survival, God conjured a watery mist to moisten the earth’s surface, priming it for farming and agriculture. Having set the stage for Man, God carefully crafted Adam, even breathing life into his nostrils. Unlike general Nature, Man was delicately and “carefully” fashioned. Nature in general, was generated by Divine speech, Man was molded by Divine “actions.” Man’s arrival is preceded by a “misting” of the Earth. Man has arrived! 

Man is the Divine masterpiece, possessing distinct Godlike traits and even absorbing (metaphorically) the breath of God Himself. The entire natural ecosystem serves humanity. Without humans, the Earth does not produce. The mysterious mist rising above a primal earth, heralds the majesty of Man and his surpassing status among Creation.

Entering a sukkah roofed with natural and pristine materials recalls that “misting” and that seminal moment in human history. This imaginative journey in time back to the creation of Man illustrates that Man receives heightened Divine supervision because of his exclusive status and because of his vast potential. Extraordinary Divine providence for Man is a product of extraordinary expectations of Man. Endowed with free will, humans alone can forge individual identity as well as shape human history. Given this immense potential, we deserve and depend upon added attention from God. Entering a sukkah ceilinged with pristine materials celebrates the magnificence of Man as a uniquely protected and a uniquely empowered creature. 

THE CURRENT pandemic challenges our faith in Divine providence. We are afflicted with a virus that has “leapt” from the animal kingdom to the human sphere and now threatens all of humanity. Heightened Divine providence for Man, as the centerpiece of creation, isn’t easily apparent. Additionally, this pandemic has a distinctively random feel. Many righteous people have passed away just as people of lesser faith have succumbed to this virus. The virus doesn’t differentiate between race, color or religion. What has become of the Divine providence that was extended to Man and augmented for Jews? 

Often, the harshest punishment lies in the “rolling back” of Divine providence. The Torah warns that if we remain callous to Divine supervision, God will withdraw providence and subject us to the misfortunes of chance and the hazards of circumstances. It is obviously impossible to decipher whether we are enduring this condition. Either way, people of faith possess unending conviction that Divine providence exists even when it remains clouded in mystery. 

In other ways Divine providence has been manifestly apparent during this pandemic. In previous generations pandemics claimed tens of millions of lives. Unprotected by vaccines and unarmed with screening and testing procedures, humanity was defenseless against the viral onslaught. We face this health crisis better equipped and better safeguarded. God has guided human scientific discovery, allowing us to generate life-saving vaccines in record time. Communication technology has enabled society to maintain “distance education” and remote occupation, preserving a semblance of routine and social order. Whatever success we have discovered in managing this pandemic is a sign of Divine providence steering human achievement. God is watching us even through the darkness.

Returning to the palace

In addition to invoking the creation of Man, the sukkah also references a different historical moment and recalls an earlier historical structure. The minimal height of a sukkah is 80 centimeters, or about 32 inches, though, obviously, most livable sukkah structures far exceed this minimal requirement. 

This minimum height of the sukkah is calculated by comparing the sukka to the dimensions of the Keruvim – the angel-like figures that adorned the ark of the Temple. A distance of 80 centimeters separated the top of the ark from the extended wings of these Keruvuim. Just as the wings of these angels hovered at a height of 80 centimeters, the schach of a sukkah must hang at that same altitude. Symbolically, entering a sukkah equates to strolling under the wings of these angels. A sukkah transports us back to the house we built for God. 

Beyond the Divine supervision that envelops every human being, Jews are privileged with additional Divine providence. We were chosen to portray God to an uneducated world and to introduce humanity to the concept of one God. In our “heyday” we actually built a mansion to house the presence of God on our planet. Signaling our Heavenly stature, we adorned the innermost chamber of this palace with wings of angels. Sadly, through our repeated betrayals, we forfeited this palace. The sukkah of providence evokes that outstanding building, and the augmented providence extended to the people of Divine mission. No longer privileged to outspread angelic wings, we simulate our past glories with sacred schach hanging overhead. 

During the past 2,000 years of historical adversity, God’s careful and loving supervision protected our people against unimaginable hostility and hatred. We have now returned to the historical stage and, once again, God’s care for His people and His land are plainly visible. Life in Israel, under the watchful eye of God, has become an expanded sukkah experience. 

Entering a sukkah is an imaginative journey to two pivotal moments in the history of Divine providence. Man was created singular, endowed with marvelous potential and supervised with extraordinary Divine care. Additionally, God selected our people to present belief and faith to a confused planet. We constructed His Temple and disseminated His will. We were shielded from the strains of history by extraordinary Divine providence. Upon our return to the land of destiny, His supervision has become obvious once again. Welcome to the sukkah we call Israel! 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.