Everything in life is temporary, including life itself.
The annual festival of Sukkot was once a pilgrimage to the temple to celebrate the harvest. Since the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., Sukkot has centered around this instruction in the Torah:
In the sukkot you shall live seven days; all the citizens of Israel shall live in the sukkot, so that your generations will know that I made the children of Israel live in the sukkot when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:42-43)
sukkot (סֻּכֹּֽת) = huts, temporary shelters constructed in fields during harvest (often translated as “booths”). Singular: sukkah (סֻּכַּה).
This week many Jews are eating meals and spending time in their sukkot. A ritual sukkah must be a temporary structure. While it can be attached to a wall of one’s house, it must also have temporary walls and a temporary roof. The roof must also be permeable, made of plant materials such as branches or reeds—materials that leave gaps big enough to let in both rain and starlight. One cannot seal oneself off from the world in a sukkah; the outside world is always coming in.
The sukkah reminds me of another temporary dwelling-place in the Torah:
And let them make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst. Like everything that I am showing you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of its furnishings, thus you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
mishkan (מִּשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place, home. (From the root verb shakan = stay, dwell, inhabit.)
Every time the Israelites camp in the Torah, the priests and Levites assemble all the pieces of the mishkan and rebuild the sanctuary. Then when the Israelites move on, the Levites disassemble all the pieces and carry them on the journey through the wilderness. The mishkan, the holy place where the presence of God dwells, is both temporary and portable.
It is also permeable. While rain and light from above penetrate the roof of a sukkah, a divine cloud by day and fire by night come from inside the mishkan and penetrate the roof so they can be seen above the mishkan by the people outside it.
Inside and Out
When we assemble a sukkah, it’s not only a dwelling-place for us, but also a mishkan for God. In kabbalah, the aspect of God that dwells here in this world is the Shechinah, a feminine form of the noun for “dweller, inhabitant” (from the same root as mishkan). As we sit in the sukkah, we invite God in, along with the rain and starlight. And God dwells “in our midst”, inside us. It is a mitzvah, a good deed, to invite other people to join you in your sukkah. I can imagine this fellowship in a fragile structure radiating goodwill out to the world.
Like the mishkan, a sukkah is temporary. Sitting in a temporary shelter can remind us that we are temporary visitors in our world. Humans get attached to things; we crave permanence. Yet in the Torah, the Israelites escape the slavery of Egypt and live in the wilderness for 40 years in tents, moving on whenever God’s pillar of cloud and fire lifts from the mishkan.
A sukkah is a reminder that we have the power to become free from attachments to material things, even from attachments to our homes and our familiar lives. We can find shelter wherever we go. Sometimes it’s hard to step out from under our solid roofs, but we can do it.
Sukkot is also called “The Season of our Rejoicing”. May we all rejoice, knowing that everything in our lives is temporary and permeable—and knowing that accepting this fact of life brings us inner freedom.