After the spiritual intimacy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we subversively break from the walls of institutions and the comforts of home into our modest sukkot (outdoor huts). It is in these huts that we rediscover the religious foundation of our human responsibility.
The Torah teaches that the purpose of sitting in the sukkah is so that later generations should know that the Jewish People were placed in Sukkot when they left Egypt (Leviticus 23:42-43). The rabbis argue about the meaning of this ritual (Sukkah 11b). Rabbi Eliezer suggests that we dwell in the sukkot to commemorate the miracle of the ananei hakavod (clouds of glory) that sheltered the Israelites from the hot sun in the desert. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, argues that we sit in sukkot to commemorate the actual sukkot the Israelites were miraculously provided (in the city of Sukkot) while in the desert.
The great 19th-century rabbi, the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter), suggested both rabbis of the Talmud were correct. He suggested that the clouds of glory (Rabbi Eliezer) represent the miracles at the time when Divine Providence was clearly observed by all. The actual sukkot (Rabbi Akiva) represent the miracles of Divine Providence that are no longer openly seen. Thus, in our sukkot today we are reminded that we must have more faith and we must devote more human toil to enable that hidden Divine Providence.
Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik Sher also suggested a synergy between the two positions. The clouds of glory represent a miracle that covered the entire Jewish people. The sukkot represent the individual providence that G-d did and does for each individual. We can be appreciative of global, national, and covenantal miracles, and we can also appreciate the blessing of a more intimate and personal providence.
The great 16th-century rabbi called the Mabit (Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Trani) asks why a holiday was not created around the other miracles of the desert, such as the providing of manna to eat or the wells to drink from. He answers that it was an extra miracle that G-d provided the luxury of shelter and not just survival (Beit Elokim Shaar ha’yesodot 37). We can never express enough gratitude to be alive and to have food and drink. But we are also grateful for the other “luxuries” that we consider needs, and we emulate G-d in securing these needs for others as well. One can survive without certain human needs and wants, but one cannot flourish without them. The Sukkot represent the blessings of human potential and flourishing.
On Sukkot, we commemorate historical miracles and eternal values, national redemption and personal salvation, Divine providence and human toil, the spiritual and the physical, the metaphysical and concrete pragmatism. In the sukkah, we are reminded of the peace that exists in the world that we can be thankful of and the need to further perpetuate that peace.
We are not only to welcome the stranger into our huts, we are commanded to once again experience our own alienation. The Torah makes the case on numerous occasions (Leviticus 23:42, 25:23, Chronicles I: 29:15, Psalms 39:13, etc.) that all humans and all Jews are gerim (strangers and immigrants). Not only are we strangers alienated before our Creator, we are also strangers on this earth during our temporary visit to the world. Rashi explains (Leviticus 23:42) that our sukkot must not only include citizens but also immigrants and strangers to ensure we remember our true nature and our temporary corporeal existence.
By reconnecting with our modest hut and connecting with other strangers in the community, we can rediscover our own frailty, our own alienation and our own human responsibility.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"