“…In order that your ensuing generations will know that I had the People of Israel live in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God” [Lev. 23:43].
One of the most colorful and engaging holidays of the Jewish year is Sukkot. Growing up, my children looked forward to this festival more than to any other – despite the interrupting rains we often endured in Manhattan during the Israeli harvest season.
Indeed, there is a great deal of pageantry in building and living in a new habitation for an entire week: the earthy greens and yellows of the vegetative ceiling (s’chach) from whose openings we must be able to see the sky, the magnificently decorated make-shift walls emblazoned with fruits and vegetables, colorful depictions of Holy Temple celebrations bringing together past glories and future hopes, and the renderings alluding to our special sukkah guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.
Beyond the spectacle, however, what is the message of this mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah?
This question is especially important when you consider that according to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, this mitzvah must be performed with specific intention and understanding, based on the Biblical verse: “…in order that your ensuing generations will know that I had the People of Israel live in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God” [Lev. 23:42-43].
I believe we can find an answer by looking at the curious Talmudic case of the person who feels discomfort in the sukkah [Sukkah 26a]. Generally speaking, we do not find discomfort serving as the basis for an exemption from a Biblical mitzvah. Sukkah is the notable exception, with Jewish law defining discomfiture as the wind or the flies making it impossible to sleep in the sukkah, or rain spoiling the soup you are about to eat in the sukkah [Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 640:4].
What is it about the mitzvah of sukkah that renders it incompatible with discomfiture?
If, as Rabbi Akiva famously maintains [Talmud, Sukkah 11b], the sukkah symbolizes the desert huts in which the People of Israel dwelt in the desert, there must certainly have been uncomfortable invasions by desert creatures and a pounding hot sun that would have made sitting in such a sukkah incredibly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, so did the People of Israel live for forty years.
Only if we maintain, like Rabbi Eliezer [ibid.], that the sukkah represents the Divine clouds of glory that protected and accompanied the people throughout the long desert sojourn, impervious to any foreign element of annoyance, would it make sense to rule that one who is uncomfortable need not sit in our sukkot today.
I would like to suggest, however, that we might view these two opinions not as being in disagreement, but rather as providing complementary perspectives. That is to say, even if the sukkot in the desert were actual make-shift huts whose occupants were vulnerable prey to all the hazards of difficult desert living conditions, if those who lived in them felt that they were living under Divine protection, they were impervious to discomfiture.
I believe that this is the message of the Holy Zohar: “It was taught to the nations of the world that anyone who has a share in our holy nation and our holy land will dwell in the shadow of Divine faith and receive the sacred guests who will bring joy in this world and in the world to come” [Emor, 2:78].
Whether your sukkah is a silo or a sanctuary depends on whether or not you feel that your nation and your land are under the loving protective covering of the Divine, come what may.
It is told that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would sit in the sukkah and continue to eat, sing and study Torah even during the worst rain storms. One of his disciples cited the halakhic principle: “If rains fall, one must (leave the sukkah) and go into the house… Anyone who is freed from the commandment of sukkah (because he is uncomfortable) and still does not leave it, will not receive any reward; he is considered a commoner (Greek, idiot)” [Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 639].
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak countered: anyone dwelling under the Divine Rays of Splendor who can nevertheless feel uncomfortable is truly a commoner!”
Perhaps the deepest message of the sukkah is that true joy and comfort stems not from a fancy palatial residence replete with expensive oak furnishings and chandeliers, but rather from familial love and togetherness within the backdrop of our Biblical guests and under the protection of a loving God.
As the Talmud teaches, “When our love was strong, we could lie on [an area as small as] the blade of a sword, and there was sufficient room; now that our love is no longer strong, a bed of 60 cubits (90 feet / 27 meters) is not large enough” [Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a].
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.