Earlier this week I had the privilege of leading a Sukkot text study. We explored some primary Jewish sources and examined the reason for, and meaning behind, the sukkah, the temporary structure that is a central part of our observance.
Some sources focus on the fact that Sukkot is a harvest festival. They suggest that the tradition of dwelling in a temporary structure began as a practical solution to the need to quickly harvest crops once they were ripe. By “living” in the fields during the harvest our ancestors were able to gather crops as soon as the sun began to rise. Thus, according to these sources, Sukkot began as an agrarian holiday.
In the Book of Leviticus, however, we find a completely different explanation for the building of huts. The Biblical mandate instructs us to live in sukkot during the festival as a reminder of our ancestors’ wandering in the wilderness. It states:You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God. (Lev. 23: 42-43)Thus, according to this Biblical source, Sukkot began as a reminder of our ancestors’ history and the wandering that ultimately led us into the Land of Israel.
Yet other sources take a metaphorical approach to explaining the place of the sukkah in our Jewish psyche. They suggest that the flimsy nature of the sukkah is a reminder of life’s fragility and the importance of being present, and grateful, in the moment.
Thus, there are at least three different ways to understand the festival that began earlier this week. And each offers its own insights and lessons.
Yesterday, however, I came across yet another way we might understand the Festival of Sukkot. The great scholar Rav Kook writes,Jewish law validates a sukkah even when it has gaping holes, when it is built from little more than two walls, or has large spaces between the walls and the roof. Even such a fragile structure still qualifies as a kosher sukkah.
The same is true regarding peace. Peace is so precious, so vital, that even if we are unable to attain complete peace, we should still pursue a partial measure of peace. Even an imperfect peace between neighbors, or between an individual and the community, is worthwhile. “How great is peace!” Proclaimed the Sages (VaYikrah Rabbah 9:9)
The value of peace is so great that we pray for it even if it will be like a sukkah — flimsy, temporary, rendered fit only by special laws.
Ma’Amarei HaRa’ayah vol 1
Even if we are not able to achieve complete peace, Rav Kook taught, we should still work toward it.
Similarly, none of us is capable of completely solving the climate crisis, or the epidemic of gun violence, or the racial disparity in our nation or any number of other social ills that plague us. But that does not release us of the obligation to do our part to address these issues.
In other words, according to Rav Kook, the sukkah is a reminder that, as we learn in the small section of the Talmud known as Pirke Avot (and I paraphrase), “It is not up to us to finish the task, but that does not release us from the obligation to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Rabbi Daniel Cohen