By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
A traveler was once passing through a small town in Eastern Europe. Hearing of a famed Rabbi who lived there, he decided to stop in and meet him. Upon reaching the holy man’s tiny cottage, the traveler was shocked to see how destitute such a famous person lived. The peeling walls of the living room housed one rickety table, two wooden chairs and an old bookcase. He looked at the famed sage in wonderment and asked,
“Rabbi! Where is all of your furniture?”
As many Jews do, the Rabbi answered a question with a question.
“My friend”, he replied, “where is all of your furniture?”
Caught off guard by such a strange question, the traveler responded,
“But Rabbi, I’m only passing through here!”
The sage replied, “I too am only passing through here.”
As the Jews escaped the slavery of Egypt, they fled into the vast desert on their way to Israel, wandering for 40 years. The Torah tells us that throughout this journey, clouds of glory sheltered them. As a remembrance of this protection, for seven days every year, it is tradition to leave the comfort of one’s home for a humble hut called a sukkah. (Outside of Israel, the observance lasts eight days.) During this time, our eating, drinking, and leisure activity occur inside the sukkah, which serves as our temporary dwelling.
There are powerful lessons to be learned from every tradition brought down in Jewish law. The flimsy outdoor dwelling of the sukkah emphasizes our dependence and trust in a power beyond ourselves. Throughout the year we dwell under a sturdy shelter that meets all of our needs and comforts. This can lead to an artificial sense of invulnerability. From the tragedies of New Orleans and Haiti, to the missiles raining down from Gaza, we know that our health, safety and livelihood depend on greater factors than only our efforts. But as we sit inside the simple sukkah walls, feeling the open breeze of the night’s sky, we are reminded of this higher force that watches over us, the source of our blessings.
If we remember that we’re only travelers in this temporary life like a sukkah, accumulating the true worth of good deeds and wisdom as opposed to transient gain, thankful for the breath and life granted us each day, our usual worries may become a little less overwhelming. The sukkah teaches us as well that there is a higher power, more dependable than brick and mortar, always protecting and watching over us.
A sukkah, at the bare minimum, must be made up of 2 ½ walls. Some say that this interesting number symbolizes a Divine love for each of us, since when embracing another person, one’s arm extends around the other and the forearm curves around the back, with the wrist and hand facing back to him, equivalent to 2 ½ walls of love.
This embrace of love on Sukkot is emphasized by the additional day of celebration after Sukkot ends, known as Simchat Torah. As 11th-century sage, Rashi, describes the holiday: “[G‑d says to Israel,] “I have detained you [to remain] with Me.” G-d cannot bear to be “separated” from us, as we emotionally disconnect after the holidays, so He desires one more day of connection. And how do we connect on Simchat Torah? Not through study, prayer, or fasting, but through dancing and joy. May we increase our joy and trust during these holidays, experiencing them anew and drawing down renewed inspiration for growth in the year ahead. Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Daniel Bortz is the director of JTEEN of San Diego. Learn more at jteensd.org.