Sukkot falls just at the time of year when the seasons are changing. In the northern hemisphere, summer turns to fall and, even in Eretz Yisrael, there is potential for variants in weather. Sukkot can be greeted with a “hamsin” – a blast of heat coming off the desert or even with a rain storm. It is during this season that we are commanded to dwell in sukkot, booths with roofs made of thatch (skakh) where we are fully aware and susceptible to the elements. Sukkot is also the holiday where we read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the book of the Tanakh most concerned with the meaning of human vulnerability.
Two sages from the period of the Mishnah debated over the significance of the dwelling in the sukkah. Each of the other pilgrimage festivals was linked to specific events of the children of Israel’s trek though the desert: Pesach – the redemption from Egypt; Shavuot – the giving of the Torah; but what about Sukkot – what does it commemorate? According to Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkah represents the “clouds of glory” (ananei kavod) which covered the children of Israel during their sojourn in the desert. Rabbi Akiva avers that when we sit in a sukkah, we are doing what our ancestors did in the desert, i.e. sitting in an actual booth (sukkah mamash). (See Sukkah 11b)
These two sages talk about different kinds of “God” experiences. Rabbi Eliezer sees dwelling in the Sukkah as a commemoration of the security of miraculous divine protection. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, shows an awareness of human vulnerability before his/her Maker.
This same dynamic exists in the haftarah for the second day of Sukkot as well. King Solomon is about to dedicate the Temple – God’s permanent “dwelling place” in Jerusalem. Before this time the Holy Ark had been moved from one temporary dwelling place to another. This auspicious event probably made Solomon quite anxious. Were his deeds acceptable to God or not? Does God desire stability or vulnerability? The answer was soon to come: “When the priests came out of the sanctuary – for the cloud had filled the House of the Lord and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord. The Solomon declared: ‘The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have built for You a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.'” (1 Kings 8:10-13)
Still, Solomon’s anxiety is Kohelet’s anxiety and is ours as well. We joyously celebrate this religious angst on Sukkot, for despite our vulnerability it is a joyous blessing to be alive.