The Sukkot of the Mind
by Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence
Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, a graduate of OTS’s Yeshivat Hamivtar, is Senior Rabbi at London’s Finchley United Synagogue (Kinloss Gardens)
The Sukkah is about a change of outlook. A change of mind.
R’ Simcha Meir Dvinsk, the Meshech Chochma, explains that the mitzvot of Sukkot both embrace nature (and our natural desires) and constrain them.
The celebration of our harvest by rejoicing with the four species is natural. Though we should seek out mehudar (beautiful) specimens, they require no particular preparation. However, when a farmer has toiled in the fields throughout the summer, ploughed, sown, cultivated, reaped and bundled his produce; once he has filled his granary, he will feel joyous and accomplished. What could be sweeter or more natural than to rest in the shade of his home? The Meshech Chochma remarks that the Torah steps in and proclaims, “Go from your regular residence and dwell in a temporary one!”
Our natural proclivities are curbed. We are thrust into a festival, not a feast of ingathering, but a “Chag L’Hashem,” a Festival to G-d. To express that gratitude, the Torah in Devarim (16:13) instructs us to put ourselves out and build sukkot. חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, “Build sukkot for yourself,” is explained as a requirement of effort.
Jewish law requires the covering of the sukkah to be תעשה ולא מן העשוי, built anew and not previously constructed. We must make a Sukkah, not just avail ourselves of something already on hand. But why?
The Talmud (Sukkah 11b) teaches תניא כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל ענני כבוד היו דברי ר’ אליעזר ר”ע אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Sukkah represents the Clouds of Glory which accompanied Israel, directing and protecting them through the forty years in the Wilderness. According to Rabbi Akiva, the sukkah represents real booths that G-d made for us.
Rabbi Akiva’s approach melds with the Rashbam’s explanation that we should not become too self-congratulatory at our harvest and the work of our own hands (see his commentary to Deuteronomy 8:17). In building our sukkot, we reinforce our gratitude for the shelters G-d gave us when we were vulnerable and on our way to the Land of Israel. Making a Sukkah is a re-enactment of the Exodus experience when G-d sheltered us in the Wilderness.
By contrast, the Clouds of Glory are purely spiritual constructs. It is the dwelling in our sukkot, rather than the building of them, that carries the symbolism. The Vilna Gaon comments that G-d withdrew the Clouds of Glory from Israel after the Sin of the Golden Calf. He only returned them when the Children of Israel commenced the construction of the Tabernacle on the 15th of Tishrei, the first day of Sukkot (see his commentary to Shir Hashirim 1:4). In the Wilderness, our labour to build the Tabernacle as a spiritual vehicle to experience G-d’s Divine presence coalesced with the return of the Clouds of Glory. Our own sukkot, as well, express a spiritual re-enactment of the return of the Clouds of Glory.
Carrying the Clouds of Glory allusion further, Reb Nosson of Breslov, the scribe of Rebbe Nachman, wrote in his Likutei Halachot that our intention while sitting in the sukkah should be that Israel is one people, for whom we feel only love and peace. We should imagine ourselves all together, sitting under the same sukkah.
This idea is grounded in a Talmudic discussion (Sukkah 27b) which conjectures, in conjunction with the deficient spelling סכת (missing a vav), that all Israel might be able to use the one sukkah.
Whereas the Torah requires us וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם, that we take our own Four Species (and at least need to own them while we are waving them), there is no requirement that we own our own sukkah. A borrowed sukkah is fine; there is no need for a financial stake in building or owning a sukkah (though a sukkah may not be stolen). All of Israel can share in the same sukkah.
This image that we should see the whole nation sharing a sukkah takes us from our fields, our harvests, and our personal booths back into the realm of the Clouds of Glory and the unity of a nation עם אחד בלב אחד, one people with one heart, as we were at Sinai.
To the sukkot in our yards and gardens we welcome the familiar Ushpizin, our great patriarchs and leaders who visit us as we sit in the sukkah. But in the Rav Nosson sukkah of our minds, we must welcome all of Israel.
Building a physical Sukkah requires a modicum of effort. Making room for all Israel in this sukkah of our minds is much more demanding. If we can imagine a sukkah, of course we can imagine a large sukkah… a really large sukkah! But can we find it in our hearts to embrace each fellow Jew within it? Can we accept that they are not tenants of my sukkah and on my terms, but partners by virtue of being part of G-d’s Holy Nation?
Just as we need to take time to step out of our homes and into sukkot to properly appreciate G-d’s protection of us and all of Israel, the festival affords us an opportunity to properly appreciate ourselves with all of Israel under G-d’s protection.
ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך
May Hashem indeed spread His Tabernacle of Peace over us and all of Israel.