Rabbi Avi Shafran
The defining element of the sukkah – the temporary dwelling in which
Jews are commanded to spend a week each autumn, beginning five days
after Yom Kippur – is the once-growing but now detached material that
must comprise the structure’s roof.
Some use untreated bamboo canes; others, mats woven for the purpose from
slivers of the same material; others still, branches or leaves or thin,
unfinished wooden slats. Whatever its particular identity, the stuff is
called s’chach, from a Hebrew word meaning to “cover” or “hover”; the
word sukkah itself refers to the same.
But there is another Hebrew word that Jewish tradition associates with
the word sukkah – “socheh” – and its meaning is “to see” or “to
perceive.” That association would seem to imply that a sukkah somehow
provides some perspective. Which, in fact, it does.
That is surely true on a mystical plane, but there is prosaic vision to
be gained no less. It doesn’t take inordinate sensitivity to see things
a bit differently while spending a week in a small rudimentary hut,
within sight of, yet apart from, one’s more comfortable, more spacious home.
One realizes quickly, for example, how dependent one is on “the
elements” – which, in Judaism’s teaching, means how dependent on G-d’s
mercy. The house is nearby, and if it rains hard enough one can –
indeed should – return to surer shelter. But the lesson remains,
because homes aren’t impervious to disruptions either, as we have
witnessed all too often of late. Nature is a humbling force, or should
be; that is certainly part of the perspective granted the sukkah-dweller.
But there is more. What the sukkah allows those within it to
perceive, if they try, is that our homes and possessions are not what
really matter. That ultimately, it is not, as the crass bumper sticker
has it, “the one who dies with the most toys” who “wins.” When we sit
in our primitive week-house, we come to know that the accumulation of
stuff we consider important is not essential. We can exist without it.
It does not define us. We will not take it with us.
It may seem paradoxical, but that thought is a joyous one.
The holiday of Sukkot has happiness as its theme. In the holiday
addition to the week’s “silent prayer,” we reference not “freedom” as on
Passover, nor “the giving of our Torah” as on Shavuot, but, simply,
“happiness.” One might assume at first thought that depriving oneself
of the comforts of home is anything but a road to joy. But one would be
For true happiness begins with the realization of what doesn’t really
make us happy. Possessions may provide a rush of sorts when first
acquired, but that soon enough wears off, like any drug. The soul is
not satiated, which is why – again, like a drug – possessions beget the
desire, even the need, for yet more of the same. In the words of the
Talmudic rabbis, “he who has a hundred wants two hundred.” And, in
another place but the same vein, “No man dies with half his desires in
Need we look further than the possession-endowed of whom we all know –
the movie stars, sports figures, best-selling authors, the old-moneyed
and lottery-winners alike? They may zip around in Lamborghinis but
their happiness quotient is no greater than that of those who take the
bus. Their grand estates are no more of a home (and all too often
considerably less than one) than the simplest, cozy cottage.
In the end, dependency on having as the means to fulfillment dashes
all hope of truly attaining the goal.
Because true joy comes from things more rarified than what we can buy.
It comes from our relationships not with things, but with other people –
parents, spouses, children, friends, neighbors – our relationships with
our community, and with our Creator.
And so, a deeper perspective afforded us by the sukkah may lie in the
realization that, ultimately, what we really have is not what we own,
but what we are – to other people and to G-d.
Which is why countless Jewish eyes will soon gaze up at bamboo slats,
leaves and branches, but they will be seeing far beyond.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.