2015-09-30 / Religion Column

Why the simple sukkah is one of our most potent symbols

Community Chaplain

Our fall holiday season reaches its climax in Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. The sukkah, its central feature, is a temporary shelter roofed loosely with branches so that starlight might enter. For generations, our people, following the directives in the Torah (Ex. 23:16; Deut. 16:13,15; Lev. 23:42-43), have spent at least a moment each day in the sukkah during the weeklong festival.

Many Jews find the sukkah to be a potent expression of Jewish identity. Constructing a sukkah creates lasting memories for children and grandchildren. In a sukkah, friends can gather for an outdoor meal before the weather gets too cold. After a busy day, in a busy time, a sukkah is a quiet sanctuary. Above all, a sukkah is a powerful reminder of our people’s heritage, hopes and values.

As part of our people’s cultural and spiritual tradition, which abounds in symbolic objects and gestures, the sukkah is one of the richest. Biblically, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah instructs us to dwell in booths for seven days so that we remember that as refugees from Egyptian bondage, God provided us with temporary housing. In the sukkah, we consider the struggles of our people to find shelter whenever we faced homelessness from the time of the Babylonia exile to the DP camps of post-World War II Europe. Today, it is a key to open our hearts to the needs of unending flow of people fleeing war and oppression.

In ancient Israel, the sukkah was the simple booth that farmers set up during the harvest to provide shade in mid-day and shelter at night. Today the sukkah, as harvest booth, reminds us of the effort needed to provide food for our world’s growing population. We take pride in the advances in agriculture that come from Israel, but we also remember the manual labor of farm workers, many of whom are migrants, who harvest our crops.

On Sukkot, we leave our homes to spend time in a simple hut. We step away from our sense of security to connect to those whose homes are no more secure than our sukkot. On Passover, we eat matzah, the unleavened bread of the poor, and on Sukkot, we dwell in sukkot, shacks, the substandard housing of the impoverished. As we offer thanksgiving for our blessings, we think of those throughout the world who are not as blessed.

The sukkah is a symbol of courage. The living in booths during the 40 years in the wilderness, fortified the generation that first entered the Promised Land. The booths evoke the memory of Jews who struggled for freedom from the Maccabees to the Jewish partisans and of the courage of the Zionist pioneers. The sukkah reminds us of the willingness of American Jews to defend our nation’s liberty.

The sukkah represents the unity of the Jewish people. In ancient days, Sukkot was the central festival. Jews from all over the world poured into Jerusalem. Temporary booths were needed to house the innumerable pilgrims. Sukkot was a time when all Jews would try to gather together as one people. In the vision of our prophets, Sukkot will be the time in which all people will celebrate our shared kinship under the gaze of God.

The simple sukkah we set up in our yards recreates the Mishkan, the portable shrine Moses built in the desert. As our ancestors could experience God dwelling in the midst of the Israelite encampment, we can envision God living within our homes and our hearts. The sukkah’s roof shows us that in order to sense God’s presence in our lives, we must open our hearts to all creation. The fragile nature of our sukkot demonstrates our dependence on God’s grace revealed in the world around us.

For seven days our sukkah is a tangible reminder of fundamental Jewish convictions and values. Our sukkah creates indelible memories that we carry throughout our lives. Although we put away our sukkah at the end of Sukkot, these values remain with us. Sukkot ends with another holiday, Shimini Atzeret/Simchat Torah which calls on us to return to the unending study of the foundational statement of Jewish life, heritage and values symbolized by our sukkot, the Torah itself. .

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