Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
The parallelism between Sukkot and Pesach is striking. The Torah scripts them to start on the fifteenth day of the month when the moon is full and to last for seven days. Originally agricultural festivals, their historical overlay links them both to the redemption from Egypt. In each case, the name of the festival derives from the ritual which is its most prominent feature. In tandem, the two anchor the changing of the seasons in the fall and the spring (the two times of year when the seasons actually change in the Middle East) in the biblical calendar. They are the axis on which that calendar turns.
The explicit historical reason for Sukkot (a plural form of sukkah meaning a hutch or booth) appears only once in the Torah: "You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God" (Leviticus 23:42-43). But the name is already foreshadowed by the name of the first site at which the Israelites encamped on their way out of Egypt: "The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Sukkot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children" (Exodus 12:37). Thus the place name anticipates the move into the wilderness where they would survive by virtue of the huts that afforded them shelter from the blazing sun.
Not all sages agreed, however, that sukkot were huts. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus early in the second century contended that the protection came in the form of a divinely provided cloud cover ('annanei kavod). That is, for the duration of their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites were fed by manna and sheltered by a canopy of clouds, beneficiaries of a caring God. Contrastingly, R. Eliezer's student, R. Akiva, the leading sage of the next generation, settled for the normative meaning of the word sukkot, literally booths (BT Sukkah 11b).
In this dispute between master and disciple, the dominant voices of the Middle Ages - Rashi in the twelfth century, Yaakov ben Asher in the fourteenth and Yosef Karo in the sixteenth - sided with the extravagant view of R. Eliezer (Rashi ad loc.; Tur and Shulhan Arukh, Oreh Hayyim 625). In his expansive halakhic code, Yaakov ben Asher insisted that the divine canopy was but one of the many dramatic miracles that made the Exodus possible. Witnessed by multitudes, these breaches of nature delivered cumulative and indisputable evidence of God's providence. For that reason, many of the Torah's commandments were justified by reference to this watershed event. But then, ben Asher asks rhetorically, why were we not instructed to erect and live in sukkot in the spring when the Exodus took place? Because at that time of year as the weather turns milder and the rains stop, many people, move into huts on their own. The true test of our faith is to do so in the fall when inclement weather returns and people take refuge again in their permanent dwellings. To celebrate Sukkot in Tishrei and not in Nisan, not only commemorates the Exodus, but also gives testimony of our obedience to God's will in the face of personal discomfort.
I must confess, though, that I prefer the more muted view of R. Akiva which downplays the magnitude of the miracle. The booths were the products of human endeavor, reflecting a degree of self-reliance. A steady diet of shattering miracles would have prolonged the utter dependence of the Israelites on God's beneficence. Instead, R. Akiva construed the trek through the wilderness as a training camp for independence, war and self-government. The challenge was to transform servile slaves into self-confident men and women ready to take responsibility for their fates. Neither faith nor polity would long endure on the expectation of unending divine handouts. The shorter the term of national infancy of ancient Israel, the better.
In this vein, the rabbinic regulation governing when a male child is obligated to dwell in the sukkah, yields a symbolic commentary. The Mishnah, in a nod to individual differences, stipulates the age with flexibility; when the youngster no longer needs his mother. The Gemara adds sensitively that this is the moment when he awakens at night and no longer calls for his mother (BT Sukkah 28a-b). Similarly for R. Akiva, a sukkah built by human hands attests to the coming of age of a nation whose maturation was stunted by extended oppression.
Still, the sukkah is inescapably fragile and ineffectual. Its roof of boughs and branches must cast more shade than light, while keeping the sky in sight. Indeed, without a gentle flow of obscure miracles, these impermanent structures alone would never have assured survival in the wilderness. In his protest against an over-dependence on extraordinary miracle, R. Akiva did not mean to wholly exclude God's presence in Israel's ordeal. The point was to grow as well as to endure, and that required a solid combination of human initiative and divine support.
On the larger screen of Jewish history, the sukkah, for me, is a metaphor for the Jewish condition. If the wilderness is emblematic of the harshness of exile, then the sukkah evokes the precariousness of living in its inhospitable clime. How often have the elements conspired to topple and destroy Jewish communities that temporarily flourished on sufferance? All too often, the shadows of persecution have overwhelmed the illuminations of Jewish creativity. The guests from the past, the Ushpizin, that I summon each year to join me in JTS's glorious sukkot exemplify the prowess and piety, the self-reliance and trust in God which have always fueled Jewish fortitude in adversity. Resting on a bedrock of faith, the sukkot we put up can withstand the gusts of many an ill-wind. And yet, throughout the festival there echoes a messianic strain in our prayers that envisions the restoration of a lasting peace in which our sukkot will forever lose their impermanence.
Shabbat shalom ve-hag sameah,