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“Sukkot Are Real” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

Friday, September 24, 2021

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we draw near to Shabbat.

You can listen to it as a podcast HERE.

Our ancestors, having wandered in the desert, took the Biblical command seriously: “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal your God.” (Leviticus 23: 41-43)

The wilderness experience plays a crucial role in the development of our identity as a people. The living in booths helped to shape it. Recreating that occurrence over the course of many generations has allowed each of us, too, to be shaped by the time in the wilderness. Residing in the Sukkot was supposed to serve as a tactile way to relive that time, just as sitting together at the Passover seder and retelling the story of the Exodus facilitated our experience. Unlike Sukkot, however, we don’t literally engage in an exodus from Egypt to understand the impact of moving from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity, but for Sukkot we do reenact it.

The rabbis were puzzled over whether God literally meant to actually dwell in booths or use it as a metaphor. The Talmud (Sukkah 11b) discusses a sichsuch, סכסוך a controversary between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer. Akiva deemed the sukkot, mamash, ממש which means real and literal while Eliezer view them as ananei kavod,ענני כבוד clouds of glory with which God surrounded the children of Israel with a protecting Presence. Another midrash (Pesikta deRav Kahana) expounded on this idea when it says, “Why do the children of Israel make a Sukkah? For the miracles that God wrought for them when they went out of Egypt…shielding them on their way.” In the wilderness, the only protection from the elements besides the fragile booth structure of the Sukkah was the idea that a caring Divine force served as a shield. God’s Presence played an important role in that vulnerable era of the wandering of the Jewish people.

The hearkening back to the days of our time in the wilderness plays a large role in the power of the holiday. The prophets view our experience in the wilderness as an ideal time, simple and noble. Jeremiah (2:2) longingly recalls, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride; how you followed me in the wilderness in a land not sown. Back then, life was not nearly as complicated as it would turn out to be when they would enter the land of Canaan and have to deal with many foreign influences.

And yet, when we truly consider the account in Numbers of what happened in the wilderness, doesn’t it seem a bit idealized?

Are we talking about the same wilderness experience? Isn’t this the place where the people complained and lamented, painting a picture of their servitude with the leeks and cucumbers they seemed to have enjoyed while enslaved?

When I reflect upon the Jewish people’s wandering in the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, what comes to my mind is their incessant complaining. Amidst the unknown frontier, our people had an insatiable hunger that not even God could keep in check.

The wilderness experience may have represented the simplicity and uninfluenced life while, at the same time, the wilderness brought on a hunger saturated with complaining. This makes up our history as a people. And this is what makes the holiday of Sukkot so fascinating. We dwell in something quite real, even if it is flimsy and vulnerable as we tell the story filled with magical thinking and a profound sense of God’s presence.

Perhaps this is why we call it z’man simchateynu זמן שמחתנו, a time of rejoicing. Experience the joy no matter what happened.
So may be it.
Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!