Monday, October 17, 2005

The Symbolism of the Succah

My friend, Yishai Fleisher, Co-Founder of KUMAH penned the following thoughts on the symbolism of the Succah a few years back, when we were both still living in America. I remember having the same thoughts about the message behind the Succah myself, which is perhaps why we're such good friends. Today, when both of us are blessed to have made Aliyah and find ourselves living in the Land of Israel, these words still ring true.

Without further ado...

During the holiday of Succot we leave our regular houses and apartments and dwell in desert huts for seven days. This commemorates the journeys of the Children of Israel in the Sinai, after the exodus from Egypt on their way to Israel. Three thousand years ago they too dwelled in "Succahs." The Succah itself is made of walls which are temporary and it has a roof made of sechach, that is, a loose array of reeds or branches through which the sun shines and the stars are meant to be seen. We eat inside the Succah, we sing songs, some of us sleep in the Succah, and we are all commanded to rejoice within it.

Today the Succah represents the galut, the spiritual desert, the exile. When we step out of our homes, here in America and in the other countries of the Diaspora, and move into our Succahs, we are reminded that our stay here in the exile is only temporary, that we have not yet reached the place of our ultimate physical and spiritual residence. Our homes in the Diaspora are nothing but a Succah, a limited and flimsy structure to tide us over until we can come home, to Israel.

To be sure, our Succah carries within its crude walls those values that we hold so dear. As with our cherished homes in the galut, we decorate our Succah with love and with care. Furthermore, we are thankful to the people and the lands that have hosted us with tolerance and respect. In fact, we are commanded to bring our non-Jewish neighbors into the Succah, to be hospitable to them, to bring them joy, to thank them. However, though our tenure in the exile is a testament to our enduring vitality, which does not mean that the galut is the end of the road for us. Just the opposite, our ideals and our people have survived in exile, precisely because we have existed in anticipation of a General Recall. The galut and the Succah are wonderful but transient and can never supplant our promise of Zion, and the permanent dwelling in Jerusalem that we have always prayed for.

So why do Israelis put up Succot? The answer lies in the Jewish tendency to forget where we came from, to forget what brought us here, to forget the dream. In Israel, the Succah serves to remind us that only not so long ago we Jews were dispersed all over the world, and that great cataclysms and great miracles brought us back from the exile to our ancient Homeland. When we leave our houses in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem in favor of a desert-hut, we are showing gratitude to the Almighty that we have been brought back from dispersion and that we have been finally been given the much-awaited task to build a permanent home in our Biblical abode. When we go to the Succah we humbly admit that we and our forefathers could have been amongst the ashes of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but instead have been given the opportunity to build a life on our beautiful Land. In Israel, the Succah reminds us that many of our brethren are still in the galut and that we have much more to do if we are to realize our calling.

The Gaon from Vilna made an incredible observation. He said there are only two commandments that can be done with the whole body. The first is the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel and the second is the mitzva of dwelling in the Succah. This is no coincidence: the Succah is an embassy of Israel and is considered to be a part of Israel wherever one is. Within its confines the Jew is transported to "Eretz HaChaim" - the land of the living. Succot is a life-giving holiday because our life force and our strength come from Israel - the Succah gives us the opportunity to immerse our whole being within it. We cannot love the galut while we dwell in the Succah, we cannot be post-Zionist when we sit in the shade of the sechach. Cynicism is replaced with a sense of destiny when the simple and wholesome Succah surrounds us.

When we look up and peer through the slits in the schach, we see a sliver of blue sky or a shiny star in the heavens. The world is a mysterious place and we do not always have the ability to understand it all. Deep down inside we know that there is something peering back down at us from the heavens and through the cracks. Something is calling our people to return to the Land of Israel. This year, may it be His will that we will heed the voice which yearns for our return, and may we merit to sit under one Succah next year, in Jerusalem, in Zion, together with all of Israel.


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