Sukkot is a Hebrew word meaning ‘how many holidays can Jews fit into one month?’ The answer, of course, is ‘I can’t be in tomorrow. It’s a Jewish holiday.’ — The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Oct. 15 2008
Jon has a point. Other holidays have their character and themes, but what is Sukkot about? Despite its many colorful practices, it’s hard to pin down what Sukkot is about. And I think that’s the point. Sukkot is many, many things in the calendar — just as it is in Scripture. That’s reflected by the seven very different personages we invite each day to our sukka.
Sukkot has its origins in Babylonian paganism (II Kings 17:30, Amos 5:26-27), and so does Abraham, the first guest. Abraham smashes his father’s idols, according to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38:13), but he fashions a new faith that repurposes many practices of the pre-monotheistic world. So it makes sense that Zechariah (Ch. 14) foresees a future time when all nations will come to Jerusalem to observe Sukkot–not Passover or Rosh Hashana, but Sukkot–expressing their recognition of One God rather than their conversion to Judaism.
Sukkot also appear in a farming context in the Bible, in Isaiah’s opening vision (1:8): “And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth (sukka) in a vineyard.” The grape harvest marks the end of the summer, with celebrations at its start and end, 15 Av and 10 Yom Kippur (Mishna, Taanit 4:8). Five days later, we build a sukka not in the vineyard, but in our backyard. And we invite the second guest, Isaac, who spends his life working the land. The drinking party (mishteh) is a recurring feature of his biography, culminating in the occasion (Genesis 27:25) when he blesses all his progeny, a decidedly different result than the other drinking daddies who precede him in the Torah, Noah and Lot.
Sukkot also appears in a ranching context, as Jacob, after his final confrontation with his twin brother, “travelled to Sukkot, and built himself a house; and for his livestock he made stalls, so he named the place Sukkot” (ibid. 33:17). These sukkot represent the tranquility of pastoral life, but there is a danger of becoming too passive. Jacob is malingering on the eastern side of the Jordan, focusing on the animals in their stalls rather than the people in his own house. This ultimately leads to a number of tragedies, the most consequential being the sale of Joseph into Egyptian slavery by his brothers.
Joseph’s Sukkot is a totally different one. We don’t arrive at it until over a century after his death.
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.’ So they travelled from Sukkot… (Exodus 13:19-20)
This Sukkot is the first station of Israel in the desert, a nation of free men and women. These are flimsy structures, but they are the first homes to be truly theirs.
Moses goes on to lead Israel to Sinai, where he ascends, entering the fog and cloud surrounding God. “And he made darkness pavilions (sukkot) round about him, gathering of waters, thick clouds of the skies” (II Samuel 22:10-12). Entering these sukkot is an experience of transcendence and revelation.
Aaron, on the other hand, manages the opposite: instead of going back up in the Cloud, he brings Clouds of Glory down to protect Israel as they move through the desert. “The Cloud was by the merit of Aaron,” the Talmud tells us (R. Yosei be-R. Yehuda, Taanit 9a), and it is these clouds which we are supposed to be reminded of when we sit in our sukkot. (R. Eliezer, Sukka 11b). These are sukkot of shelter, protection and peace.
The last guest is King David, of whom Amos says (9:11): “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of (sukkat) David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old.” Is this the palace? Is this the temple? Is it both? The symbolism is so evocative that we include the phrase in our Grace After Meals throughout the week of Sukkot. It is striking that a sukka, a seasonal structure, is given the royal treatment; but that’s because in relation to God, the most lasting human achievement is temporary. Still, we should take pride in our glorious past and future, as Sukkot comes to a close for another year.
May your sukka be a place of faith and feast, tranquility and transformation, prophecy and protection and prestige. Chag same’ach!