Few Jewish festivals are as rich in symbolism as Sukkot, yet few also contain so many paradoxes. They begin with the name itself. The Biblical command is quite clear:
‘You shall live in ‘sukkot’, fragile shelters, for seven days; all native-born Israelites shall live in shelters, in order that future generations may know that I made the children of Israel live in shelters when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’. (Lev 23:42-43)
Yet according to the Bible itself, it seems unlikely that the Israelites actually lived in ‘shelters’ during the wilderness period. In one of the best known Biblical verses, which stands at the front of every morning service, Balaam the foreign sorcerer and prophet, in contemplating the Israelite encampment, says: ‘Mah tovu ohalecha yaakov, mishkenotecha, yisrael’, ‘How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.’ The meaning of ‘tent’ is clear, and a ‘mishkan’, whatever form it took, suggests a semi-permanent dwelling.
The more obvious context for a ‘sukkah’ is linked to another of the names of the festival, chag ha-asif, the ‘festival of ingathering’.
‘You shall celebrate the festival of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your labours out of the field’ (Exodus 23:16).
It is the festival that marks the end of the year’s harvest and the celebration that is to accompany this. The sukkah in other Biblical verses is indeed a frail, temporary shelter, the place where those working in the fields could take a rest from the heat of the sun (Isaiah 1:8, 4:6).
Each of the harvest seasons in the land of Israel was given a broader historical significance: Pesach being tied to the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai. So too Sukkot is linked to a significant period, and the harvest-time ‘shelter’ comes to symbolise the wilderness wanderings.
When the exiles returned from Babylon, they found that this festival, that was ‘written in the Torah’, had not been observed since the time of Joshua bin Nun, that is since the actual entry into the land itself. So now they set about performing it and creating ‘sukkot’ on their roofs, in their courtyards, in the courtyard of the Temple and in front of the city gates (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Perhaps it was their personal experience of exile, of living in temporary accommodation with the hope of one day returning to their land again, which gave a particular significance to this festival for that generation.
Yet the interaction between these two dimensions of the festival, the harvest and the history, is itself very fruitful. At the time of harvest, the greatest expression of wealth and well-being for an agricultural society, we are to imagine ourselves as wanderers in a wilderness, impoverished and dependent solely on the bounty of God for sustenance, the mysterious Manna. By extension we are forced to recognise in the bounty yielded by the earth that same sustaining hand of God. At a time when we have a land of our own, with all that implies about being rooted, having continuity and security across the generations, we are to imagine to ourselves the rootlessness of refugees, never at home anywhere, in an always foreign landscape. Conversely, while in exile, in our sukkah, surrounded by the fruits and produce of other countries and climes, we can dream of restoration to the land.
The festival brings home very clearly the two poles of Jewish existence, the land and exile, Erets Yisrael and Diaspora, the struggle to maintain a place in the former, and the yearning for it when it is lost.
Another surprising element of the festival relates to the sacrifices that were ordained for it. In one of those mind-numbing listings, the Bible records how many animals were to be sacrificed each day of the festival, beginning with thirteen oxen on the first day, twelve on the second, down to seven on the seventh day (Num 29:12-34). The total number comes to seventy, the Biblical symbolic number representing the nations of the earth, and according to the Talmud, they were offered on behalf of the nations so as to protect them. The prophet Zechariah could envisage a pilgrimage from all the nations of the world to Jerusalem to worship God at Sukkot. Since this period also marked the start of the rainy season, their acceptance of Israel’s God would guarantee that they would get the necessary rain for their own harvests.
Thus Sukkot, which at first glance seems to be a very inward looking festival, becomes one of the most universal. The tradition of ‘uzpizin’, of guests being inviting to the Sukkah, provides an opportunity to offer hospitality to people of all faiths and of none to share in the joy of a Jewish festival.
The sukkah equalises our Jewish experience. Whether in Jerusalem or in Moscow, Brooklyn or Berlin, for a brief period Jews everywhere know what it means to be both at home and homeless, to be guests and hosts. As we celebrate and share the gifts of the harvest we know at the same time just how fragile and illusory our security can be in a world that always threatens to become a wilderness. The final paradox of Sukkot is that knowing and accepting this reality, is also a source of strength.
Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet
Ordained at Leo Baeck College 1971
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.