Frederick L. Klein

Sukkot: Opening our Eyes to Blessing and Responding in Joy

Image of sukkah from a 1740 Manuscript. Courtesy of wikipedia

One of my favorite Chasidic folk tales is the story of the house that is too small.[1] A tiny room, the parents can no longer stand the six children running around making a ruckus.  Sleepless and exhausted, they are at their wits end.

“Why not go to the rabbi?  He will have the answers,” the wife opines.  Her husband agrees and goes to the rabbi.

“Tell me, do you have any animals?” the rabbi asks.

“We have a cow, a goat and some chickens,” the man responds.

“I advise you to bring them into your house,” the rabbi responds.

The man is perplexed, but as the rabbi was known for his erudition, he decided to follow his sage advice.  All the animals were herded into the tiny hovel, which now not only housed six ruckus-making kids, but mooing cows, bleating goats and clucking chickens.   The parents never had a moment of silence.

After a week of this, the husband could take no more of it.  He went back to the rabbi. “People told me you were wise, but your advice made things worse!”

“You have animals in the house?” the rabbi asked, as if he was not the one who advised them.

“Yes rabbi.  You told us to do it!”

“Well, I advise you to ignore me and get them out of there!  No wonder you cannot have any peace!”

And again, they followed the advice of the rabbi.  However, this time they noticed a strange peace fall upon their house, a tranquility they had never known before.  In the small hovel, the parents found expanses of tranquility and even joy.

Indeed, the rabbi was wise.  He did not help them expand the space in their home, but the space in their hearts.

On the holiday of Sukkot, the essential mitzvah of the holiday is going out into the sukkah, a makeshift hut of temporary walls and roofed by thatch. The Torah states that you are to live in the sukkah for seven days in order to remember that God made the people live in huts in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt (Lev. 23:42-43).  You are not only to live for seven days in the sukkah, but you are to rejoice with your family, as well as the orphan, widow and stranger.  The rabbinic name of our holiday is in fact chag simchateinu, the holiday of our joy.

Unlike a the other mitzvot, the sukkah does not seem to have an actual ritual action.[2]   When I eat matzah there is a specific action, a minimal amount required, a time in which it is done.  The Torah just says in connection to the sukkah do whatever you do in the sukkah.   In essence, the mitzvah is more about being than about doing.  While the rabbis legislated that meals should be eaten in the sukkah, this is because meals are generally eaten at home, and for seven days one is to behave in the sukkah as they would their home.  There is not a specific mitzvah in the Torah to eat meals in the sukkah per se.

Because of the oppressive heat and rain in Florida, it is exceedingly difficult to live in the sukkah for seven days, and halakhically one is permitted to return to the home because of discomfort.    However, when living in Jerusalem, where the weather is generally beautiful, I did not limit my time to eating in a sukkah.   When I studied in Yeshiva, the students brought their mattresses into the sukkah and slept there.  When I lived in Jerusalem, I would not only eat and study Torah in the sukkah but play family board games.   I am always disappointed that I cannot do the same thing in South Florida most of the time.

What is the meaning of this ritual?  Generally, a ritual is a performative act out of the context of normal time, to sensitize us to a certain professed meaning in this world.  We raise a glass of wine and bless the sabbath and in that ceremony we proclaim and mark the weekly drama of God’s creation.  The power of ritual is that it creates moments outside the course of the normal flow of life, what anthropologists call liminal times.  In contrast, eating a meal or sleeping or playing a game or talking to friends are normal things we do every day.  What is unique about the mitzvah of sukkah is not the acts themselves, but the context of those acts. The sukkah is unique in that it raises the acts of regular life into holy rituals.  What are the normative Jewish values that the sukkah suggests?  Allow me to suggest one avenue.

We live in a world which is so grounded in our homes.  A home is not simply a physical structure but represents that which we believe belongs to us- our possessions, our accomplishments, and the space we create in this world.  What is under our roof belongs to us. We live in a world of excess; what were luxuries only ten years earlier are now perceived as necessities.  The great irony of our generation is that we have more than any point in human history, and yet levels of depression and despair are at all time highs.  Sadly, even suicide is rising to unprecedented levels. How can it be that our houses and possessions constantly expand, but the capacity to see and realize our blessings seem to consistently contract to the extent that we might feel unfulfilled, and even suffer mental anguish.[3]  Perhaps one reason is that we are messaged constantly by everyone and everything that we need more, and then we will be happy.  In fact, when we get that gratification, we do feel an adrenaline rush, but in truth that feeling is fleeting.  King Solomon, in the book of Ecclesiastes read on Sukkot, engages in all the pleasures of the world, ‘withholding from his eyes nothing they asked for, and denied himself no enjoyment,’ and yet in the ends realizes it is all folly, meaningless (Ecclesiastes, ch. 2).

We live in a society that is all about the chase after ends which will not ultimately satisfy us.  In the process, we may forget the things in life which truly bring meaning.  The sukkah invites us to let go of all of this- to get out of the frameworks which claim our lives.  It invites us to enter another dimension where we can connect to what is important- our relationships with people around us and with the Infinite surrounding us.

If those things are in order, everything else falls into perspective.  On sukkot we leave our permanent abodes and sit under a temporary shack to understand that what brings permanence to this world are not the things we have, but the memories we make with those around us.  In a sukkah we realize that the daily simple gestures of life are gifts that are freely given to us every day of our lives.  The roof of the sukkah is thatched, because in truth we do not live our lives in our artificially constructed roofs, but we live underneath the infinite canopy of heaven.   Indeed, we do have enough room to move around; we just need to realize where we live.

People often ask why they do not feel the presence of God.  One answer is perhaps we are too surrounded by distractions of the ‘stuff’ all around us.  It doesn’t simply clutter the room but clutters the mind.   The sukkah calls us to leave our homes, to leave all those distractions behind. In looking up we notice who we are in this world, and suddenly our hearts expand.  In this awakened state, we rejoice and freely share with others the bounty we have received.

It is a radical thing: the original abode of God in the desert was also a makeshift tent that went from place to place.  When the people traveled, the tent was disassembled and the Divine presence in the form of a cloud traveled with them. According to one rabbinic opinion, the sukkah is to remind us not of the physical huts, but the clouds of glory in the desert.[4]   Unlike the pagan gods who had cultic centers, in the earliest phase of Jewish religion God was a nomad just like the people.  God travelled in the midst of wherever the people were.  Ironically, even after the Divine glory rested in the Temple of Jerusalem, it was still poetically referred to as the sukkot of David.  No matter how grand of a structure the Second Temple became, in truth the fact was that God’s presence was as palpable as the capacity of the people to let God in.

On Sukkot, we are invited to return to the desert, to move outside our permanent structures and to travel with God under the clouds of glory, to understand that God journeys with us just as we had in the desert, providing miracles and wonders.  With the right attitude and perspective, perhaps we will be able to open our eyes even wider, look around us, and recognize the gifts we receive every day, and respond in joy.

May we be blessed with tranquility and peace in our houses.


Chag Sameach


[1]  I was reminded of this story I taught as a Jewish youth advisor on a Gush Etzion podcast by Rabbi Alex Israel (KMTT the Torah Podcast, Sept. 27).  This children’s story is one of the books that has been distributed through our PJ library program.  The Little Little House | PJ Library

[2] See sukkah 27a and the debate of what actually must be done in the sukkah itself to fulfill the mitzvah.

[3] In saying this I do not want to reduce the fact that there are in fact people who are in actual real need with food and shelter insecurity.

[4] The actual literary argument of this idea is beyond the purview of this reflection.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.