(Photo/Wikimedia-Gilabrand CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo/Wikimedia-Gilabrand CC BY-SA 3.0)

A sukkah is much more than just a temporary booth

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Exodus 33:12-34:26

Ezekiel 38:18-39:16

When I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, there were two constants every Sukkot.

First, it always rained during Sukkot. Most years it even poured. Yet even during driving rain and wind, we all sat absorbing the message of the sukkah, about the fragility of life and human construct, and how even in this modern era of human progress and ingenuity, we are just as dependent now as in ancient times upon God’s grace and protection.

The recent hurricanes and storms, which battered and devastated so many lives, poignantly remind us that our suburban homes and luxury highrises are merely fancy sukkahs that are just as vulnerable as the people inside.

While in the sukkah, we also are reminded to feel its holiness, to have faith that we are secure in the all-encompassing hug and embrace of our creator. Indeed, our sages teach us that the enveloping walls of the sukkah all around us are meant to convey God’s embrace of his children following the Days of Awe.

And so, no matter the storm, back in Brooklyn we had all our meals in the sukkah for the entire festival, because regardless of the weather, we yearn for that divine hug.

The second constant every Sukkot was the song. Every year it was sung in its original Yiddish. My father taught us the plaintive soul stirring melody that he sang together with his father in their rainy sukkah when he was a child.

Translated below from Yiddish, the song is based on a poem composed by Yiddish writer and poet Abraham Reisen (1876-1953). It encapsulates one of the fundamental purposes of why we sit in the sukkah.

Every year when the rainy season arrives, we leave our perceived permanent protective shelter, our home, and sit in a porous portable hut, reflecting on our total dependence on the Almighty. While we may be conscious of the rain in our homes, there is a visceral and experiential lesson to be learned of our reliance on God every moment of our lives, sitting under the stars in a sukkah, especially when we are at the mercy of the elements.

The Talmud (Sukkah 11b) records two opinions as to the reason for the holiday of Sukkot.

One is that it commemorates our ancestors living in temporary booths during their 40-year sojourn in the desert. The other opines that the booths mentioned in the Torah are metaphoric. Instead, they refer to the clouds of glory, or clouds of honor, that accompanied and sheltered the Jews during those 40 years.Thus it is the Almighty’s supernatural protection of our ancestors that we are commemorating.

There is a famous talmudic maxim, known as Eilu va’Eilu etc. (Eruvin 13b), that in truth there is no dispute: Both opinions are the words of the living God.

All are in agreement that Sukkot celebrates both the literal booths of physical shelter, and also at the same time the supernal clouds of protection. While the discussion may analyze the primary purpose of our commemoration, all agree that Sukkot embodies both facets.

The song also reflects that the sukkah is a metaphor for all our travails and wanderings for the past 2,000 years of our exile. Its rickety protections underscore that it is held together barely, but that as long as we take shelter in it, we will survive.

A sukkaleh, quite small,
Wooden planks for each wall;
Lovingly I stood them upright.
I laid thatch as a ceiling
And now, filled with deep feeling,
I sit in my sukkaleh at night.
A chill wind attacks,
Blowing through the cracks;
The candles, they flicker and yearn.
It’s so strange a thing
That as the Kiddush I sing,
The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.
In comes my daughter,
Bearing hot food and water;
Worry on her face like a pall.
She just stands there shaking
And, her voice nearly breaking,
Says “Tatteh, the sukkah’s going to fall!”
Dear daughter, don’t fret;
It hasn’t fallen yet.
The sukkah will be fine, understand.
There have been many such fears,
For nearly two thousand years;
Yet the sukkahleh continues to stand.

Indeed, this sukkah we sing for and contemplate is much more than just the one we reside in for a week. In our daily maariv prayers, we pray “ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” — please spread over us your sukkah canopy of peace.

May we merit to see the fulfilment of the prayer recited in the grace after meals during the Sukkot holiday, and which is also the chorus to the above song. “May the merciful one re-establish the Sukkah of David that is fallen” (Amos 9:11).

Chag sameach.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].