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Why a sukkah?

With so many memorable events in the Torah, why do we commemorate the temporary dwellings of the Israelites in the wilderness, of all things?
The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1634. (Wikipedia)
The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1634. (Wikipedia)

Why on earth are we celebrating the holiday of Sukkot now? The Torah explicitly tells us that the reason God commands us to move into these booths for a week is to remember the way that God protected us in the wilderness when He took us out of Egypt (Leviticus 23:42-43). This holiday, then, should be celebrated on the heels of Passover when we relive the Exodus, not five days after Yom Kippur!

Additionally, if what God wants us to do on this festival is remember His benevolent protection in the desert, why is moving into booths the mechanism for doing so? In all the numerous verses throughout the Torah that describe our sojourn in the desert, not one single one mentions our “sukkah” abodes. In fact, it is only through this verse that commands us to dwell in sukkot annually to recollect the sukkot of the desert that we discover that God housed us in sukkot at that time. If I were God and instructing my people to recollect the Wilderness era, I might have invented a commandment involving some manna-like substance. Why does God select the sukkah as the symbol of the desert years?

I believe the key to answering both questions lies in reconstructing the events of that first year in the Wilderness. Our sojourn begins with our miraculous Exodus from Egypt as we march through the split sea a free people. Seven weeks later, we arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai, where we witness God Himself reveal the Ten Commandments to us. Awesome as that experience is, it ends in disaster 40 days later, when Moses descends from the mountain to discover the nation dancing around a golden calf. After Moses begs and pleads on behalf of the people, God finally vouchsafes His forgiveness. And the nation then constructs the Mishkan – the Tabernacle — to house God’s presence in its midst.

But realize the following (I was stunned when I did): Thousands of years of history are covered in the Torah that is filled with events that could easily have generated an annual holiday. Consider the end of the Flood, the Binding of Isaac, the command to Abraham to move to the Promised Land, to name a few. Yet, virtually all of our holidays commemorate events from the same single calendar year — that first seminal year in the wilderness. We start with Passover to celebrate the Exodus. We then count the omer — Sefirat HaOmer, which brings us to the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the Torah. Forty days later, we fast on the 17th of Tammuz, to commemorate not only events leading to the destruction of the Temple, but also the Sin of the Golden Calf (Mishnah Taanit 4:6). We then observe Yom Kippur, when we were granted forgiveness for that egregious sin. This, finally, brings us to the holiday at hand, Sukkot. Within the above context, it suddenly becomes obvious what this holiday is about; why it must be celebrated precisely now immediately after Yom Kippur; and why it must be commemorated specifically with booths, rather than a symbol of manna, for example. The holiday of Sukkot commemorates the next event in that seminal year – the construction of the Mishkan.

Several compelling parallels between our sukkahs and the Mishkan support this notion. A defining characteristic of the Mishkan was its temporary nature; it was frequently deconstructed to accompany the Children of Israel on their travels through the desert. In fact, it is referred to as the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, in contrast to its later, more permanent counterpart, the Beit HaMikdash, the House of Sanctity. Similarly, in order to be a kosher sukkah, it must be a temporary structure; if it is too permanent, it is in invalid (Masechet Sukkah 2a). In addition, Shemini Atzeret, the additional holiday that follows the seven days of Sukkot, is reminiscent of the inauguration ceremony for the Mishkan (described in Leviticus, chapters 8-9), which lasted for seven days, followed by the final eighth day, called, naturally, “Yom HaShemini.” Finally, I find it fascinating that the English title for the holiday seems to reflect this very conception, since Sukkot is designated the Feast of Tabernacles, the identical word used for the Mishkan.

The comparison gives to a more pressing question, however. Namely, why was building the Mishkan so significant that it became part of our annual reliving of that seminal year’s events?

Perhaps because there could not have been a more powerful expression of the people’s repentance or of God’s forgiveness for their sin of the Golden Calf than the Mishkan.

To create the golden calf, the nation generously donated their gold, silver, and jewelry. The Mishkan is the quintessential tikkun, a commensurate repair, that gives the Children of Israel another opportunity to contribute their valuable possessions — this time toward the construction of a house for God.

At the same time, the Mishkan is the perfect vehicle for God to express His forgiveness, as the Mishkan is precisely what hangs in the balance during those fearful days when Moses pleads with the Divine to forgive the people for the Sin of the Golden Calf. The primary purpose of the Mishkan is for the Divine Presence to reside in the midst of the people, as expressed in Exodus 25:8, “Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The Sin of the Golden Calf shatters the relationship between God and the Jewish people like the smashed Tablets. God essentially makes the decision to move out. Even after He agrees not to obliterate the nation and to still lead them to the Promised Land, He makes known that He will no longer reside in their midst (Exodus 33:2), and He even instructs Moses to move the Tent of Meeting “outside the camp far from the camp” (Exodus 33:7). If God will not dwell among the people, then, by definition, there can be no Mishkan, the entire purpose of which is to house God’s presence in the nation’s midst. Thus, if God will not fully forgive the people, there will be no Mishkan.

Now we can appreciate why nothing else would have been as effective in conveying the depth and fullness of God’s forgiveness than His instructions to the people to carry out construction of the Mishkan. It was essentially God’s way of telling the people: I am moving back in with you. I am reinstating our relationship to the pristine, intensely close way that it was, prior to this debilitating sin and betrayal.

And nothing could be more fitting than going straight from Yom Kippur into the holiday of Sukkot. Placing the holiday of Sukkot on the heels of Yom Kippur is God’s way of expressing to us that His forgiveness is deep, genuine, and sincere. This message can only be fully expressed if God in fact moves His Divine Presence into our sukkot parallel to what He did in the Mishkan. What’s remarkable is that that seems to be exactly the case. No wonder it is traditional to begin constructing our sukkot literally the very night Yom Kippur ends to demonstrate the sincerity of our repentance by spending that very night engaged in building a house for God (Rama Orach Chayim 624:5 and 625:1).

The most powerful reflection of God’s forgiveness, to my mind, is based on the minimum height of a sukkah. The Mishnah (see Sukkah 4b-5a) states that a sukkah must be at least 10 tefachim (handbreadths) high. The Gemara questions how the Mishnah knew this, and it answers: Based on the Ark, which was 10 tefachim! The Talmud explains the Ark was 10 handbreadths because that is the minimum height upon which the Divine Presence reveals Itself — God does not descend within 10 tefachim of the ground (based on the verse from Psalms 115:16, “the earth He has given to Mankind”). The powerful message conveyed by applying that same minimum height to our sukkot is that in order for a sukkah to be kosher, it must be a structure into which the Divine Presence can descend. As we eat, sleep, and simply live our lives as much as possible in our sukkahs this week, we should be conscious of the fact that we are doing so in the presence of the Shechina.

We can now circle back and answer the questions with which we began. Once we recognize that our sukkahs represent not only the way God protected the Children of Israel in the desert, but also the Mishkan, then it makes sense that we build them immediately after Yom Kippur. Moreover, the only symbol that captures the message of God’s forgiveness from that time is a sukkah. We can also appreciate that the holiday of Sukkot is the culmination of our annual re-enactment of that original year in the Wilderness, our nation’s foundational year. The final climax is not the awesome experience of the Exodus on Passover nor the inspiring splendor of Mount Sinai on Shavuot, nor the attainment of divine forgiveness on Yom Kippur. The ultimate goal of that year and every year since is channelling the powerful experiences of the year into building a community that houses the Divine Presence at its core.

About the Author
Rabbanit Dena (Freundlich) Rock is a core member of the faculty at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, where she teaches Talmud and Halachah, in addition to coordinating the Matmidot Scholars program. Prior to making aliyah in 2010, she served as Talmud department chair at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ. She holds a BA in Biology and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and was a member of the first graduating class of Yeshiva University's Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS).
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