By Rafi Weinstein
Today is the first day of the seven-day holiday known as Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). Though the Torah commands: “You shall live in booths seven days” (Leviticus 23:42), growing up in New York my family barely spent time in the sukkah (temporary dwelling lived in on the holiday). I remember going in to the sukkah for the main holiday meals and that’s it. It was too cold to sleep there, and sitting around outside just wasn’t something we would do. Since coming home to the Land of Israel, we have slowly returned to the original custom of ‘living’ in the sukkah. Instead of spending the minimum amount of time in the sukkah, we really try to make it our main dwelling place over the course of the holiday.
In Israel it is much more common to sleep in the sukkah. This is one of the customs that was neglected in the diaspora – mainly Europe – because it was too cold and perhaps too dangerous. Some devout Jews barely leave the Sukkah for the entire seven-day holiday; eating, drinking, studying and just hanging around – all day long.
I have been privileged enough to be able to ‘imitate the righteous’ and try to spend as much time as possible in the sukkah. Throughout the day, there is plenty of time to ponder what we can learn from this command. Here are a few inspiring ideas I have gleaned throughout the years:
1. Get back in touch with nature
I’m not sure about you, but I am definitely guilty of this – we simply don’t spend enough time outdoors. When God created the world, he created it in a way that we can meet him through nature:
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; The birds of the sky, they will tell you, Or speak to the earth, it will teach you; The fish of the sea, they will inform you. Who among all these does not know That the hand of Hashem has done this? In His hand is every living soul And the breath of all mankind. (Job 12: 7-10)
In fact, Maimonides states in his work, Foundations of Torah, that contemplating the natural world and its awe-inspiring wonders leads a person to love of God.
When we don’t spend enough time outside, we don’t get to know God as well. I actually have a theory that atheism started when people started moving away from nature. When we just hang around indoors it is easy to forget God, but when we spend time enjoying nature it’s hard to forget him. The sukkah gives us time to just be outside with God and enjoy His world.
2. We are not in control
I remember that one year I was praying in the sukkah. I was up to the amida, a part of the service where we stand in place with our feet together and aren’t supposed to move. All of a sudden it started to rain. I couldn’t move though, I was stuck. Luckily it seemed that the leafy roof known as schach was stopping the rain from coming in. I sighed in relief. Then, it started to pour. Five second later the schach gave way and I was soaked. I tried my best to pray with intention and get through a few minutes of soaking rain. I came inside, humbled by the experience. Not often are we reminded that we are not in control of our circumstances. Praying in the sukkah that day gave me a necessary reminder.
In fact, the Torah itself says that the purpose of the sukkah is “in order that future generations may know that I made B’nei Yisrael live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I Hashem your God (Leviticus 23:43). What was the exodus from Egypt if not the ultimate reminder that God is in control!
3. We have everything we need
Sukkot is the holiday of joy. The Torah says of the holiday:
“You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.” (Deuteronomy 16:14)
Anyone who has experienced it knows that indeed there is a special joy in the air on Sukkot. What makes Sukkot so joyous?
The sukkah is a simple, temporary, hut. One of the factors that lead to the joy of the holiday is the return to simplicity. We leave our comfortable homes to dwell in the sukkah and just enjoy the life we have. We take time off of work, spend time with our families and just appreciate the real blessings that God has bestowed upon us. This sense of taking a step back and enjoying what we have gives us true happiness and contentment.
Let us recap:
- Sukkot reminds us to be mindful of nature and to connect to God through it.
- Sukkot reminds us that we are not in control, rather God is in control of everything.
- Sukkot reminds us that we have everything we need, and that contentment is the key to happiness.
We should be privileged to live these truths throughout the year, amen.