by Hazzan Jenna Greenberg
The Torah teaches that we celebrate the festival of Sukkot in order to remember that God provided sukkot for B’nai Yisrael in the wilderness:
“You shall live in Sukkot (booths) for seven days, all citizens in Israel shall live in 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 am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 23:41-43)
But what exactly were these sukkot?
This Talmudic machloket (debate) (Sukkah 11b) states the following:
‘I made the Israelite people live in Sukkot (booths).’
Sukkot refers to the “clouds of glory,” said Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Akiva says: God made real Sukkot for them.
According to Rabbi Akiva, we are supposed to remember the actual huts that B’nai Yisrael lived in while God led them through the wilderness. There is no particular symbolism to this word, as he understands this very literally. It is what it is.
According to Rabbi Eliezer, the “sukkot” we are supposed to remember are not the tents they lived in, but God’s pillar of cloud, God’s clouds of glory that miraculously surrounded and protected B’nai Yisrael in the wilderness (Shemot 13:21-22).
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, interprets this debate, with both Eliezer’s physical and Akiva’s metaphorical understandings in mind.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explains Rashbam’s understanding of the purpose of the sukkot as follows: Rashbam says that the sukkot were there to remind the Israelites of their past so that, at the very moment they were feeling the greatest satisfaction at living in Israel – at the time of the ingathering of the produce of the land – they should remember their lowly origins. They were once a group of refugees without a home, never knowing when they would have to move on. The festival of Sukkot, says Rashbam, is integrally connected to the warning Moses gave the Israelites at the end of his life about the danger of security and affluence:
‘Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God …Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery …You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”’ (Devarim 8: 11-17)
The festival of Sukkot, according to Rashbam, exists to remind us of our humble origins so that we never fall into the complacency of taking freedom, the land of Israel and the blessings it yields, for granted, thinking that it happened in the normal course of history.
As we dwell in and visit all of the wonderful sukkot in our community, may we all experience that empathetic recollection of what our ancestors experienced, reminding us not to take the shelter that we have today for granted, further reminding us of the miracles in our lives today. Having this attitude of awe and gratitude, especially during the festival of Sukkot, leads us to an attitude of happiness. For as we know, this is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of happiness. May this week bring us all much joy, as we celebrate in sukkot across our community.
As it is written: V’samachta b’chagecha v’hayita ach sameach! You shall rejoice in your festival…and be only joyous! (Deut. 16:14-15)