Repairing Jonah’s Sukkah
This coming Friday evening we herald in the first festival of the Jewish year, Sukkot. Between Motzei Yom Kippur (the evening concluding Yom Kippur) and Friday, sukkot (temporary booths) are built all around the Jewish world. It is an especially memorable event in Israel where cities and villages alike are transformed by the festival greenery. Special markets spring up across the country peddling the four species that are brought together as we celebrate the absolute joy of the holiday. The fragrance of the etrog embraces all as we enter the sukkah, declaring our faith in God’s protection. That said, the sukkah is not only at the essence of Sukkot; the sukkah, in all its beauty and symbolism provides a powerful bridge between the most sacred day of the year, Yom Kippur, and the harvest festival of Sukkot. The sukkah is mentioned explicitly in the Book of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Then, with the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the rabbis encourage us to immediately begin building a sukkah. What do the juxtaposition of these two sukkot teach us? What lesson can be gleaned from this powerful, yet temporary structure?
The sukkah or booth makes its first and only appearance in the Book of Jonah in the fourth and final chapter. Having preached God’s admonition to the inhabitants of Nineveh and having witnessed the full repentance of the Ninevites along with God’s forgiveness, Jonah is furious – and retreats to the outskirts of Nineveh to wait and see what will ultimately become of these wayward but repentant Assyrians. We are told that Jonah, “found a place east of the city. He made a booth (sukkah) there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city” (Jonah 4:5). Although a sukkah is typically associated with peace, shelter and God’s beneficence, Jonah turns the true image of the sukkah on its head. It is as if Jonah is lying in wait. Dissatisfied and even angry with the mercy God has shown to the Ninevites, Jonah waits patiently in an attempt to prove he is right – that his pessimism will prevail and God will destroy the Ninevites. Jonah’s behavior is unbefitting an Israelite prophet. One who should be rejoicing in God’s mercy becomes embittered.
How fitting it is then that at the conclusion of Yom Kippur we are commanded to build a different kind of sukkah. The sukkah that we build is one that negates Jonah’s pessimism in human nature. It is a sukkah that stands for peace, faith, shelter and ultimately in the eternal Jewish optimism of human behavior. The liturgy itself expresses such an image. In the evening service of Shabbat we read, “Spread over us the shelter (sukkah) of Your peace. Praised are You, Lord, who spreads a shelter (sukkah) of peace over us, over all His people Israel and over Jerusalem.” The booth that we build on Sukkot mirrors the heavenly sukkah that God spreads over us; it is an expression of hope in our future.
The sukkah then is a powerful bridge between the absolute solemnity of Yom Kippur and absolute joy of Sukkot. On Yom Kippur, Isaiah’s words propel us toward tikkun olam, repairing a broken world. Building the sukkah – our sukkah – becomes Israel’s tikkun (apology) for Jonah’s acrimonious desire.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.