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 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.
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:
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.