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The Sukkah – G-d’s Embrace

Bs”d Sukkot 5782
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, centers on two main commandments: the sukkah, and arba’at ha’minim, the “four species.” Once a year, around the end of the agricultural year, we are obligated to leave our homes and move into a sukkah for seven days. The second commandment is to take the four species: the etrog (citron), lulav (palm), hadas (myrtle), and arava (willow) and rejoice with them before G-d. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was also a commandment to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. There are Jews who do so until today and visit the Western Wall during Sukkot.

We can try to imagine the tremendous celebration that took place in Jerusalem: extended families – men, women, and children – would come to celebrate Sukkot in Jerusalem for seven days. Both the local residents and the pilgrims would eat and sleep in sukkot that filled the streets and markets of Jerusalem. But above all – was the Temple. The sages of the Mishna describe the Temple being lit every night and illuminating the entire city. Masses would ascend to the Temple to celebrate in song and dance against the backdrop of the Levites’ music until the early morning hours when they would descend together to the stream to draw water for the altar. These celebrations were called Simchat Beit Hashoeva. The sages of the Mishna declared that “He who did not see the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 5, 1).

We can only try to imagine the incredible joy and unity that Sukkot brought with it.
The Torah explains the commandment of Sukkot as follows:
in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt.
(Leviticus 23, 43)
In what kind of sukkot did the children of Israel live when they left Egypt? Rabbi Akiva, a sage of the Mishna, explains that this is a reference to ananei hakavod, the divine cloud that enveloped the Jewish nation in their desert journeys.
The sages of the Talmud reveal another layer in our understanding of the commandment of sukkot:
“In sukkot shall you reside seven days”. The Torah said: For the entire seven days, emerge from the permanent residence and reside in a temporary residence.
(Sukkah 2,1)
By examining these two sources for the reason behind the commandment to sit in a sukkah, we can reveal the wondrous light in this holiday.
All year long, man is engaged in his routine life: he builds himself a house where he can shelter from the weather and the world outside, and he creates for himself a life of security and order. From this place, he aspires to success and self-fulfillment. In the race of life, man draws his existential security from the home and the life he has created for himself.
After Yom Kippur, when man is forgiven for his past mistakes and he reverts back to being as pure as he was when he was born, G-d now asks us to leave our comfort zone and our safe environment and move to a “temporary residence” devoid of the familiar and comfortable order and security. Of course, it is not G-d’s will that man feel unsafe, but that he experience a different sphere of existence like that experienced by the Jewish people when they left Egypt and walked in the dry and barren desert, where they were enveloped by divine clouds and had all their needs met directly by G-d.

During that time when the nation was born, the Jewish people did not need to create an environment of security because the experience of divine existence enveloped them and provided for all their needs, like a newborn baby who draws his sense of security from the loving presence of his mother.

Once a year, G-d asks us to leave our comfort zone, to leave the safe environment we’ve created for ourselves, and to attempt to reconnect with that same experience of a newborn nation enveloped in G-d’s embrace, to bring into our lives that awareness that G-d’s loving presence fills the world, as it says in Psalms:
He who dwells in the covert of the Most High will lodge in the shadow of the Almighty.
I shall say of the Lord [that He is] my shelter and my fortress, my G-d in Whom I trust.
(Psalms 91,1-2)
Chag Sameach!!