By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
October 10, 2003
One of the central mitzvot of this festival - and the one from
which it derives the name Sukkot - is dwelling in a thatched hut called a
sukkah. The only source for this can be found in today’s Torah reading:
Speak to the Children of Israel saying, “On the fifteenth day of this seventh
month is the festival of Sukkot, seven days to Hashem. . . . In huts (B’SUKKOT)
shall you live for seven days. Every native in Israel shall live in huts, so
that (L’MA’AN) your descendants shall know that in huts I sheltered (HOSHAVTI)
the Children of Israel when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am Hashem,
your G-d” (Vayikra 23:34,42-43).
Upon the Exodus from Egypt, Hashem provided shelter (HOSHAVTI) to the Children
of Israel. According to Rabbi Eliezer (Torat Kohanim 17:11 and Sukkah 11b),
whose opinion alone is cited by Rashi, this refers to the clouds of glory (ananei
ha’kavod) which surrounded the camp, protecting them from wild animals,
snakes, scorpions and the elements. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, says that
HOSHAVTI means that Hashem “housed” His nation in actual huts.
When we leave our permanent homes for the interim shelter of the sukkah we are
reminded of our ancestors’ forty year-trek in the wilderness. It is important
for us to remember, as Ramban says, “that they were in a desert. They did not
enter a house, nor did they find a city for dwelling (Tehillim 107:4), for
forty years. Since Hashem was with them, they wanted for nothing.” The sukkah
expresses in concrete terms that our security depends, at all times, upon
Hashem’s care and protectorship.
This is a significant element of the lessons of the Exodus, arguably the
seminal event in Jewish history. Maharal devotes an entire book (Gevurot
Hashem) to the centrality of the Exodus to Torah commandments, theology and
ethics. As a consequence, he writes (chapter 3), mankind is made aware of
Hashem’s Presence in His world. Sukkot, furthermore (chapter 46), highlights
the basic human need for shelter, provided by Hashem: “Therefore the
commandment of sukkah is for a person to leave his house, which is his place,
in order to sit in the shade of the sukkah, because a person needs shelter.
Therefore one must dwell in a sukkah, because a sukkah is shelter as well.
Understand this well.”
All three Pilgrimage Festivals, therefore, are connected to the Exodus. Torah
Temimah (here and on verse 6) writes that, based on Sifra here and Sifri on
Devarim 16:11-12, had the Torah not said so explicitly, we might have deduced
that eating matzah is also obligatory on Sukkot and living in a sukkah is also
obligatory on Pesach! This is because, parallel to matzah on Pesach, the
mitzvah of sukkah evokes the Exodus. In contrast, the mitzvah of taking the
four species is particular to the season of Sukkot, when the produce is
gathered in. Sukkah is the “Exodus mitzvah” of Sukkot.
When R. Yaakov ben Asher (c. 1270-1340) opens the section of the Arba’ah Turim
of the laws of the Sukkah (Orach Chaim, ch. 625) he uncharacteristically
begins by explaining the intention (kavanah) of this commandment: “This
teaches the truth about the Creator’s existence, may He be exalted: He created
all by His will, and it is He Who has the power, control and ability in both
the upper and lower realms to do as He wishes and there is none to tell Him
what to do, as He did with us when He brought us out of Egypt with signs and
wonders. The sukkot of which the text says, ‘He sheltered us’ are the clouds
of His glory with which He surrounded them so that they would not be smitten
by hot wind and sun. Accordingly, He commanded us to construct sukkot so that
we remember His wonders and awesome acts…”
R. Yoel Sirkes (1561-1640), in his commentary to Arba’ah Turim, Bayit Chadash,
says that it is the “Tur’s” intention to teach a halachah: namely, that one
does not fulfill the mitzvah properly unless one keeps in mind its connection
to the Exodus while sitting in the sukkah. This is because the verse
Every native in Israel shall live in huts, so that (L’MA’AN) your descendants
shall know that in huts I sheltered (HOSHAVTI) the Children of Israel when I
took them out of the land of Egypt.
This makes the mitzvah of sukkah unusual: regarding all mitzvot there is the
question whether there is an essential need for kavanah (see Berachot 13a,
Eruvin 95b, Pesachim 114b). But, that kavanah is no more than the intention to
perform a mitzvah. The kavanah of sukkah of which the “Tur” speaks concerns
the purpose, the “message,” of the mitzvah.
(In fact, the “Tur” discusses the crucial nature of kavanah in connection with
only two other mitzvot: tzitzit (ch. 8) and tefillin (ch. 25). In both
instances, “Tur’s” reasoning is based on the fact that the Torah (see Bamidbar
15:40 and Shemot 13:9) mentions explicitly that these mitzvot are to be
observed in order to remember, respectively, to do the commandments and the
Exodus. It is interesting to note that all three mitzvot introduce the
“reason” with the word LEMA’AN.)
These three mitzvot all envelop and surround the person: tefillin on the body,
tzitzit on the clothing and sukkah as the shelter. This is reminiscent of the
three levels of tzara’at (Vayikra 13:1-59, 14:33-57), which serve as warnings
to the sinner. But, when one is entirely embraced by a mitzvah, it is easy to
take it for granted, to forget its penetrating message. It is thus all the
more vital that we are conscious of the purpose of these mitzvot.
As we sit in our sukkah, let us keep in mind the Exodus when, like a sukkah,
Hashem’s sheltering wings first began to enfold us.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Every Friday and Yom Tov night we recite: "... Hapores sukkat shalom
aleinu v'al kol amo Yisroel V'al Yerushalyim - [God] spreads His canopy of
peace ("sukkat shalom") over us, over all His people Israel, and over
Jerusalem." What is the connection between a sukkah and shalom? A sukkah
is by definition a dirat arai - a temporary dwelling with a thatched roof
that does not even keep out the rain. What is the connection between an
impermanent covering above our heads, and shalom?
The answer might lie in the fact that an impermanent roof allows us to
look upward and, symbolically, to see the heavens, and it allows the
heavens to enter, as it were, our own dwelling. In a sukkah we are not
shut off from the One Above, and the One Above is symbolically invited to
enter our abode. A sukkah thus represents the connection between the lower
and the upper worlds, the lifeline between man and God.
Sukkot is the time when we abandon our permanent homes and choose to live
in a temporary dwelling for a full week. By so doing, we express our faith
that our lives and our security do not depend on impregnable dwellings or
fortresses. On the contrary, our lives and security depend on being truly
connected with the One Above. Without that connection, even powerful
ramparts and barricades cannot give us the peace we so fervently desire.
“Lo bechayil velo bekoach…”/ "not by might nor by strength but by My
spirit," says the prophet Zechariah (4:6).
The Sukkot Yom-Tov thus represents true peace, the peace that is granted
to us from above, and that enables us to invite God to enter our lives.
Yes, we must be physically strong, and we must be able to defend ourselves
and repel our enemies by force. But in the midst of the physical defenses,
we must bear in mind that true peace is a gift from God, does not depend
on our own selves, and ultimately results from our devotion and attachment
to Him and to His ways.
May we be worthy of God's canopy of peace over all of us.
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320