Noah Leavitt

Learning To Live In Our Shared Sukkah

I left my synagogue after Neilah on high, feeling inspired by the beautiful service I had just experienced. However, when I got home and read the news of what had transpired in Dizengoff Square I was deeply saddened. The images were deeply disturbing and it soon became apparent that this had not been an isolated incident. A number of Orthodox groups of all stripes that attempted to hold minyanim outdoors, as they had done in years past, were disrupted. I scrolled through news story after news story looking for answers that weren’t there.

There is a famous disagreement in a Midrash about the reason for the mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah. The Midrash quotes the verse “In order that future generations may know that I made the Jewish People live in sukkot.” Rebbe Eliezer says: “They were real sukkot.” Rebbe Akiva says: “They were the Clouds of Glory.” The Midrash records an argument between Rebbe Eliezer and Rebbe Akiva about whether or not the sukkot that we build today are meant to recall actual booths which our ancestors built to live in or instead are meant to commemorate the Clouds of Glory that shielded them through the wilderness. But what lies behind this claim that our physical sukkot are meant to represent God’s presence? Is Rebbe Akiva just offering a homiletic interpretation totally detached from the meaning of the text?

Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein, a Talmud and Rabbinic Literature professor at NYU, notes that there is something odd about the verse that the Midrash cites which may have motivated Rebbe Akiva’s interpretation. We might have expected the verse to read “in order that future generations may know that the Jewish people dwelled…” However, that’s not what the Torah says. Instead, the word for dwell is in the causative form implying that God caused the Jewish People to do something rather than simply recording what the Jewish People did or made on their own.

How one understands the reason for the mitzvah of sukkot has far reaching implications. The Gemara records a series of disagreements between Rebbe Eliezer and the Sages regarding how one fulfills the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. According to Rebbe Eliezer a person only fulfills the mitzvah of sukkah with their own sukkah and can not travel from sukkah to sukkah. Since Rebbe Eliezer believed our sukkot are meant to remind us of the individual booths that our ancestors made, it makes sense that he also stresses the individual nature of this mitzvah. However, the halacha does not follow Rebbe Eliezer. Instead, the Sages teach that the entire Jewish People can fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah in one sukkah and that one even fulfills the mitzvah of sukkah in a stolen sukkah. The Shulchan Aruch records that “A stolen sukkah is valid. How? If one overpowered his friend, left his (own) sukkah and stole it and then dwelt in it, he has fulfilled his obligation…” Halacha frowns upon the thief’s actions but they nevertheless still fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah.

Rebbe Eliezer’s vision of the sukkah as something that we construct to wall us off from those around us is an ever present temptation. One that we see all too often in contemporary life. In religion, politics, and culture we silo ourselves off from those with whom we disagree. Yet God caused us to dwell in a different sort of sukkah, one in which everyone was included. Within the confines of the Clouds of Glory were the Nachsons and the Korachs, the Calevs and Yehoshuas alongside the would-be trembling spies. The sukkah, which recalls the Clouds of Glory, is a paradigm for shared space. A place where anyone and everyone must be welcome. Even those we don’t like or don’t want can still fulfill their mitzvah in our sukkah. The challenge of sukkot is how to navigate our differences and disagreements while preserving the shared space the sukkah represents. May we live up to this challenge and may our people’s ultimate shared space, Medinat Yisrael, rise to this challenge as well.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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