Eating in the Wilderness

| Sukkot By :  Alan Cooper Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies Posted On Sep 24, 2010 / 5771 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Last month, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times under the title “Aw, Wilderness!”—an obvious play on Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” While O’Neill’s “wilderness” was a town in Connecticut, the op-ed was about the real thing, recalling the sad incident of a skier who got lost on a trail in northern Minnesota and died of exposure. In response, the Forest Service installed markers along the trail, but when the time came to replace them the agency refused to do so, claiming that the signs violated the 1964 Wilderness Act.

The article went on to discuss the problematic balance between preserving wilderness areas and providing safe access to them. An interpretation of the Wilderness Act tilted in favor of preservation led to the banning not only of signs, but also of vehicles and tools that might facilitate access and improve safety. “As a result,” the author observed, “the agencies have made . . . supposedly open recreational areas inaccessible and even dangerous, putting themselves in opposition to healthy and environmentally sound human-powered activities, the very thing Congress intended the Wilderness Act to promote.”

In response to the article, one correspondent wrote that the author had “a very different concept of wilderness than many of us. We want places where safety and survival are not guaranteed . . . and I’m willing to accept the risk inherent in visiting them.” As another put it, “There must remain parts of our world that are true wilderness . . . without the safeguards and conveniences of the modern world. Lives are lost in such places, as lives are lost in the larger world, but it is nonetheless good to rely solely on ourselves when we go there.”

With Sukkot on my mind, the wilderness controversy prompted me to imagine what the Israelites’ experience of the wilderness might be like nowadays in contrast to biblical times. How much of the hardship of their forty-year trek from Egypt to Canaan might they have been spared if their four-wheel (instead of four-legged)-drive vehicles had been guided by GPS rather than meandering pillars of fire and cloud, or if the signage in the desert had amounted to more than a few indecipherable graffiti (even more obscure than Garden State Parkway markers)?

Leaving those idle notions aside, however, I noted a striking parallel between the opposing views of wilderness (greater safety vs. greater risk) and varying degrees of Sukkot observance. It is well known that biblical law assigns more than one connotation to the festival: while it was primarily the Israelite harvest celebration, probably derived from an old Canaanite festival, it was secondarily historicized in relation to the Exodus, acquiring an additional dimension of meaning: “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths [sukkot], 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” (Lev. 23:42–43).

We observe the historical aspect of the festival by erecting and “living in” our own sukkot, ritually identifying with our ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness. Just as we revisit the thrill of liberation from Egyptian slavery at our Pesah sedarim, we also endure some of the vicissitudes of the wilderness in our sukkot. But exactly what does it mean to “live in” the sukkah, and what sort of “wilderness” do we experience in a nicely appointed backyard hut? In Talmudic times people apparently inhabited the sukkah for the duration of the festival, taking all their meals in it and even sleeping in it. Some Jews continue that stringent practice to the present day, but the halakhah does not demand it, especially not of those who live in colder climates. Observance of Sukkot is supposed to be a source of enjoyment (see Deuteronomy 16:14), not discomfort. One frigid sleepover in a Connecticut sukkah many years ago was more than enough to convince me of the wisdom of the halakhah.

The essential halakhic requirement is to eat all full meals in the sukkah, but even that requirement is weather-dependent: we do not have to eat in the sukkah if it is raining (or snowing, which actually happened to us one year). Nevertheless, as Rabbi Louis Jacobs (z”l) observes, “it is the custom of the majority of Hasidim to stay in the sukkah even when it is raining.” Rabbi Jacobs explains their rationale: while there is no obligation to stay in the sukkah during inclement weather because of the discomfort involved, a true Hasid never experiences discomfort in the fulfillment of a mitzvah!

The Hasidic attitude partially parallels the view of one of the letter writers I cited above: “There must remain parts of our world that are true wilderness . . . without the safeguards and conveniences of the modern world.” The more unforgiving the conditions in our sukkah, perhaps, the greater the empathy we experience with the harsh lives of our ancestors. But when the letter goes on to state that it is “good to rely solely on ourselves,” it expresses a sentiment that is diametrically opposed to one of the fundamental teachings of Sukkot: no matter how remote our locale or how dire our situation, we are never truly alone, and there is no particular virtue in our relying solely on ourselves.

While the mainstream interpretation has taken the sukkah to be a physical structure, rabbinic literature also provides an alternative in the name of Rabbi Akiba: “Rabbi Eliezer says, they were real sukkot; Rabbi Akiba says, the sukkot were the clouds of glory” (Sifra Emor 17.11 and parallels). In a fine article entitled “The Symbolism of the Sukkah” (Judaism 43 [1994], pp. 371-387), Professor Jeffrey L. Rubenstein explains, “For R. Eliezer the Israelites dwelled in real booths in the desert. For R. Akiba, however, the Israelites did not reside in booths at all! They dwelled midst the ‘clouds of glory,’ within the clouds that marked the presence and radiance of God.” Rubenstein understands that the two interpretations (realistic/symbolic) are complementary rather than contradictory. As he rightly observes, “rituals and symbols operate on many levels, and have many meanings.”

The beautiful image of “clouds of glory” surrounding and enveloping the Israelite camp evokes God’s protective and loving presence amidst hardship. Whether the danger is existential, as it was for the unfortunate skier in Minnesota and for the Israelites in the wilderness, or ritualized, as when we brave the wasps and risk exposure in our sukkot, God is present. Overarching the fragile physical sukkah that is exposed to the elements is God’s sukkat shalom, the “canopy of security” that we invoke every evening in prayer. Through observance and prayer, we may transform the transitory experience of divine protection in our ritual “wilderness” into a permanent condition of dwelling “in the shelter of the Most High” (Ps. 91:1).


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.