Seeing Sukkot in the Book of Jonah
This week, we make our preparations for the coming festival of Sukkot. The Shulkhan Arukh, the authoritative code of Jewish law from the sixteenth century, relates that immediately at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, one should occupy oneself with the mitzvah of building the sukkah. Typically, one engages in a symbolic act of sukkah building as a way of showing one’s enthusiasm to participate in this special mitzvah. Yet, the sukkah serves as far more than the symbol of Sukkot. What is the essential purpose and meaning behind the sukkah? How does it act as a bridge between Yom Kippur and Sukkot? And what core quality stands at the center of these primitive booths? The answer to these questions can be found in the Book of Jonah.
Toward the end of the Jonah narrative, the wayward prophet engages in the act of sukkah building. Having tried unsuccessfully to escape the word of God, Jonah ultimately delivers God’s message of repentance to the Ninevites. Much to the dismay of Jonah, his worst nightmare comes true as the Ninevites repent from their evil ways. From the king to the cattle, all don sackcloth and ashes as they engage in a seemingly genuine act of teshuvah (repentance). Angered by God’s merciful gesture in accepting their contrition and sparing Nineveh from destruction, Jonah takes God to task: “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live” (Jonah 4:2–4). Note well the repetition of “I” in this verse; for Jonah, it is all very selfishly about him and what he wants. Jonah cannot admit to the possibility of a “second chance,” so loyal is he to the notion of strict justice. Then demonstrating his resentment, Jonah relocates to the outskirts of the city, where he builds himself a sukkah. The ostensible purpose of this booth is to serve as an observation point – from which he will witness the utter annihilation of Nineveh and its inhabitants. Jonah, however, is woefully disappointed once again to discover that he has grossly misread God’s intentions. While God repeatedly desires to teach Jonah a lesson about loving–kindness and in particular, caring for “the Other,” Jonah resists to the bitter end. Through the sailors (who attempt to row back to shore to save Jonah), the great fish (who spits Jonah out), the people and beasts of Nineveh (who repent and listen to Jonah’s message), and the infamous gourd (which provides shade for Jonah), God is working as a teacher of compassion. Jonah fails the test.
Far from being exploited as an observation point, a sukkah is about God’s compassion. The building of this temporary home is wholly about recognizing the fragility of life and the extent to which we are dependent on God’s loving–kindness. Were it not for this kindness, the world would cease to exist. And more than that, the sukkah is about recognizing our dependence not only on God, but also on community. We, unlike Jonah, cannot be islands unto ourselves. We are obligated to open the doors of our sukkah to biblical (ushpizin) and modern–day guests. Only by nurturing our feelings of compassion and welcoming guests to our home can we embrace the true meaning of Sukkot this holiday season.
Shabbat shalom ve–hag sameah,
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.