The symbol of the succa

‘So that your generations will know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 23:43).

Succa painting (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Succa painting
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Rav Hayim Ish Brisk, the most revered grandfather of my great teacher Rav J.B.
Soloveitchik, derived from this verse the necessity of performing the commandment of succa with proper intent, with the clear understanding of why we are commanded to dwell in the succa for seven days. And to add complexity to our proper fulfillment of this commandment, there is a fundamental difference of opinion as to the symbolism of the succa, as to exactly what it is that the succa is telling us to re-experience: “R. Akiva says the succa represents the clouds of glory; R. Eliezer says the succa is the actual huts or booths [which the Israelites erected for themselves in the desert]” (B.T. Succa 11B, in accordance with the text as it appears in Torat Kohanim).
There is a world of difference in the emotions engendered by the succa, dependent upon which of these views one accepts.
If the succa represents the actual huts or booths in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40-year-long sojourn in the desert, the succa expressed the protection which God afforded His nation. The Festival of Succot then becomes linked to the other two “galut” (exile) festivals, Pessah (Passover) when we became freed from Egyptian slavery, but only got as far as the desert, and Shavuot (Pentecost), when we received our Torah from Mount Sinai, which is also part of the galut experience, our not yet having entered the Promised Land and its Temple Mount. This symbolism of the succa teaches us to give thanks to the Almighty for enabling us to survive desert alienation and persecution; it praises God for the special concern for His chosen people.
If however, the succa represents the clouds of glory which rested upon the Sanctuary, as the Ramban (Nahmanides) expresses so beautifully in his introduction to the Book of Exodus, “when [the Israelites] came to Mount Sinai and made the Sanctuary, when the Holy One Blessed be He extended His Presence [Shechina] amongst them..., when the secret (glory) of the Lord was above their tents..., then they could be accounted as being redeemed….” When the succa is the symbol of the clouds of glory, expressing the redeeming love of the Lord, “the fallen booth of David,” the Holy Temple itself, which will become “a House of prayer for all the nations,” the festival of Succot becomes inextricably linked to the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur month of festivals, to the universal festivals of God’s purifying love bringing Torah from Zion to all 70 nations, to the Messianic period when the world will be perfected in the Kingship of the Divine.
If one reads carefully the verses which deal with the festival of Succot (Lev. 23:33-44), one finds both interpretations of the succa: The passage commands the seven-day festival of Succot, forbids physical creativity on the first day, describes the sacrificial order, and mentions Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day on which work is forbidden (ibid. 23:33-36). The text then seems to end the entire subject of the festivals, with the familiar concluding refrain, “These are the festivals of the Lord...” (ibid 37, 38).
Then follows an unexpected return to Succot but this time speaking not of booths but of crops: “But on the 15th day of the seventh month, when you gather in the crop of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for seven days, with the first day as a rest day and the eighth day as a rest day.” Now comes a new commandment to take of the four species of fruit trees (citron fruit, date-palm branches, myrtle twigs and willows) and rejoice with them for seven days. Finally a repetition of the command to dwell in booths as a reminder that God caused the Israelites to live in such dwellings when He took them out of Egypt, followed by another concluding verse: “And Moses declared the festivals of the Lord to the children of Israel” (ibid. 39-44).
The Vilna Gaon explains that the first description of Succot only discussing the “booths” is the “galut succot,” the protective booths in the desert; the second passage relates to the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land, their celebration of the fruit trees of the land, and the transformation of the booths into a symbol of universal redemption, the Holy Temple as a house of prayer for all nations to the one God of peace, compassion and morality. And so we bring on Succot the 70 sacrifices for the 70 nations of the world, and we recite the Psalms of Praise (Hallel) as we wave the vegetation in all six possible directions, based upon the verse that “then [in the time of Redemption] the trees of the forest will exultantly rejoice before the Lord who has come to judge the earth” (I Chronicles 16:33).
The sacred Zohar teaches that the symbol of the succa depends upon where we are living: in galut they are the actual desert huts, whereas now in Israel reborn, they are the clouds of Divine Majestic Glory, the universal House of David rebuilt and restored.
Alas, so used have we become to hiding ourselves away in succot, which needed very high protection walls of separation and which couldn’t risk windows to enable us to look out and bring in that we have lost the art as well as the sense of responsibility to transform the succa into a sanctuary, inviting all the nations to enter, to learn, and to proclaim together the Name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder (Zephaniah 3:9) in peace and mutual respect.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.