What event in history does Succot commemorate?
To be sure, the Torah tells us to live in succa-booths for seven days to remember the succas that GD made for our ancestors in the desert. But what exactly were the nature of these succas?
Unsurprisingly there are two Talmudic views on the matter. Rabbi Eliezer opines that they were clouds of glory which enveloped and transported them in an ethereal canopy of protection. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, declares that our ancestors built actual succas made of vegetation detached from the soil like we do today.
What is this strange disagreement among two of the Talmud’s most famous rabbis coming to teach us?
I remember once relating this difference of opinion when teaching about Succot to a group of committed Jews in my community. One of the group admitted to me that he found this hard to believe. I replied: “Do you believe in the plagues, in the splitting of the Sea, in the Manna, in the revelation at Sinai?” Yes he did. “Then why not the clouds of glory?” “You don’t understand” he said. “I have no problem with the clouds of glory. But where on earth would the Jews have found vegetation in the desert!”
It’s an oddly humorous story, but it accurately depicts the weltaunshaung of many of us. It also helped me to understand the Talmudic disagreement a little better. The two rabbis were illustrating a startling lesson. The big miracles like GD creating cloud-caravans, we have no problem in believing (assuming we are believers). The small miracles, like GD providing an oasis of trees in a desert, challenge or elude us.
The big happenings, when they occur, evoke a sense of contemplation or awe of the Divine. Particularly in recent years – or is it just that the world has become a smaller place? – such happenings have tended to be laced with tragic overtones, whether ‘natural’ disasters wrought by Heaven or unnatural ones unleashed by the beast within man. Sadly Erets Yisrael has witnessed more than its fair share of the latter kind.
But going back a few more years, there have been others. The miracle of Israel’s survival and stunning victory in the Six-Day War. The incredibly bold and successful raid on Entebbe. Thirty-nine Scud missiles raining on Israel during the Gulf War and not one death. Jews with a sense of the Divine had no problem or embarrassment publicly declaring these to be miracles of GD. These are, one might say, the modern-day equivalent of ‘clouds-of-glory’ miracles – the biggies.
However, there are also the events that occur every day. The scores of thwarted suicide bombers and would-be terrorists and murderers that plan to strike in locations throughout the world and don’t make it. Maybe the security is too good. Maybe their planning is too poor. But we fail to reflect that GD comes into the picture here. Maybe these are ‘greenery-in-the-desert’ happenings where we imagine He is in no way involved.
Many of us have doubtless experienced moments in our lives when we have felt touched by the caress of GD: a life-threatening operation successfully executed against the odds; finding the right marriage-partner at last; holding a new baby; securing a dream job-offer, just as we are on the point of despair; hearing an inner voice guiding us at a crossroads in our lives when we must make a critical decision. What about the small decisions we are inspired to make every day which can make all the difference to ourselves and to our families. What about the little kindnesses, the tiny oases of life? Are they not emanating from GD as well?
What about the gift of being able to appreciate or even create music or art? The ability to construct or to repair; or the special talent of being able to fashion a garment? What about when your teenage son who will never concentrate on anything except the latest computer-game for more than five minutes comes home suddenly with an outstanding report card? Or when your late-developing child or grandchild at last takes his first tentative steps, speaks her first halting words? Are these not wonders too?
Why then do we validate as miracles only the biggies like the splitting of the Reed Sea, like the clouds-of-glory in the desert while disdaining to imagine that GD would stoop to such small miracles as providing trees in the desert so that the Israelites could build their own succas?
Were then the Succas clouds of glory or actual succas made of greenery? The question remains gloriously unresolved. I believe that the Talmud is telling us that both are true and that the very existence of the discussion teaches that just as we acknowledge the great and supernatural wonders of GD we ought to acknowledge the small everyday ones as well.
In this way may the joys of Succot extend to the entire year. And may every day of the year be suffused with connectedness to the Source of all existence in myriad ways both great and small.