Citizen has always been a title of honor not easily attained. In the
city-states of ancient Greece and especially in the Roman Empire,
citizenship was a highly prized distinction. It was a recognition of social
and economic status and a guarantee of special rights and privileges.
But what does citizenship signify in Jewish society?
Let us take a look at the Torah’s presentation of the mitzvah of
sukkah. After the uplifting experience of the High Holidays, we are
enjoined to build an impermanent booth and make that our primary
place of residence for an entire week. “You shall dwell in booths for
seven days,” the Torah tells us, “every citizen of Israel.”
This is an unusual choice of words. The Torah always directs itself
to “all the people of Israel.” Yet here, the Torah seems to limit the
injunction to people of status and privilege. We know, however, that this
is not so, that the mitzvah of sukkah is universal, regardless of class
and social status.
The commentators explain that the Torah is being as inclusive here
as everywhere. The use of the term citizen, however, is meant to teach
us an important lesson. Jewish citizenship does not derive from an
accumulation of worldly possessions, high social status or political
power. Quite the contrary. It derives from a deep faith in the benevolent
guidance of the Creator, from a focus on spirituality rather than
Where does this supremely Jewish attitude manifest itself? In the
sukkah. When the harvest is in and the weather grows cold, the entire
world withdraws to the warmth and security of home and hearth, but not
the Jewish people. We leave the comfort of our homes and celebrate
the festival of joy in our makeshift booths to show that we are in
Hashem’s hands. If we have faith, we are secure anywhere, and we if
we don’t, we are secure nowhere. Those who enter the sukkah are the
true citizens of Israel.
A traveler from a distant land paid a visit to a great sage. Many
people stood on line for the privilege of spending a few brief moments
with the sage, and it was fully an hour before he was allowed to enter.
The sage sat at the head of a rough-hewn table, which groaned
under the weight of his holy books; the furnishings of the room were
The sage lifted his kindly, wise eyes, greeted the traveler warmly
and invited him to sit down. The chair groaned angrily under the
traveler’s bulk, but fortunately, it did not collapse.
“If you would forgive me,” said the traveler, “I would like to ask a
“Go right ahead,” said the sage.
“You are so famous and celebrated. People come to ask you
advice and blessing from all over the world. Why isn’t there any decent
furniture in this room?”
“A very good question,” said the sage. “But let me respond with a
question of my own. Where is your own furniture?”
“Back home, of course.”
“But why isn’t it here with you?”
“Because I am a traveler. I am only passing through this place.”
“Ah, that is indeed the answer. And it is also my answer to your
question. I too am only a traveler. I too am only passing through this
world. In the few years I will spend here, I have no need for fine
In our own lives, we are inevitably absorbed by material pursuits.
We have to earn a living to put food on the table, to provide health care
for our families, to pay the mortgage and tuition. We need to replace the
old car, and the children need braces. But once a year, we should step
back and put it all in perspective. When we enter the sukkah, we face
the true reality of our existence, that the kindness of Hashem protects
and sustains us and not the walls we build around ourselves. When we
accept this knowledge into our hearts and respond with the
transcendent joy of the festival, that is when we are granted our
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.