It's a Cloud, It's a Hut...It's a Sukkah!

Many of us are currently constructing the temporary huts known as sukkot in preparation for the holiday known as Sukkot — or at least planning on mooching off ones other people have built.

But why are we instructed to to construct them at all? The Torah tells us it's in commemoration of the sukkot we dwelled in on our way from Egypt to the Land of Israel.

(מב) בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת׃ (מג) לְמַעַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

(42) You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, (43) in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.

There's one problem though:

In the four books of the Torah that describe the Israelites wandering in the desert, there is not one other verse that mentions them living in sukkot. (We thought about making a count of the number of times the books mention Israelites living in tents, but it would take too long. Trust us. It's a lot of times.)

The Gemara, edited and compiled around 500 CE, records a disagreement on the nature of just what the actual sukkot in the desert were:

הניחא למ"ד ענני כבוד היו אלא למ"ד סוכות ממש עשו להם מאי איכא למימר דתניא (ויקרא כג, מג) כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל ענני כבוד היו דברי ר' אליעזר ר"ע אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם

The Gemara asks: This works out well according to the one who said that the sukkot mentioned in the verse were clouds of glory, as it is reasonable that the roofing of the sukka is modeled after clouds. However, according to the one who said that the children of Israel established for themselves actual sukkot in the desert, and the sukkot of today commemorate those, what can be said? According to that opinion, there is no connection between a sukka and a cloud. As it is taught in a baraita that the verse states: “I made the children of Israel to reside in sukkot(Leviticus 23:43); these booths were clouds of glory, this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They established for themselves actual sukkot.

So now we have two opinions and no conclusion.

Is the sukkah commemorating the literal booths the Israelites lived in in the desert? Or the divine clouds that sheltered them?

Obviously, it's probably both!

But what's the point of remembering what it was like to live in booths? What's the point of remembering being sheltered by God's cloud? Do we really need both? Why not just pick one?

Let's discuss what each of them really represent.

The "sukkah mamash," the real, literal booth, is a temporary dwelling. It doesn't have four walls or a fully covered roof. It is easily taken down and easily put back up, good for travel. It doesn't offer true shelter or security and anyone who has spent the holiday in a sukkah knows its inconveniences well.

When you dwell in a sukkah, you're subject to nature's whims. At it's base, to spend time in a literal sukkah is to embrace your own vulnerability. It's to reject the fallacy that you have full control and learn to live in flexibility and fluidity.

The cloud on the other hand...

If the sukkah is a rejection of shelter, the Divine cloud is the ultimate shelter. The Israelites were safe in the wilderness, a place where they should have been most vulnerable, because they were under the direct protection of God. God's cloud shielded them from the elements in a way a sukkah never could and defended them from enemies when sukkot are easily destroyed.

So for the true meaning of Sukkot to be clear, we need both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer. Sukkot is not just about vulnerability. And it's not just about protection.

It's about a recognition that as human beings we don't always have the power to be in complete control. But that if we surrender our need to be in control, there maybe someone else out there taking care of us.

So relax. Let go a little and revel in your insecurity! It's zeman simchatenu, the time of our joy! A little vulnerability can be a beautiful thing.