This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
After the soul-searching introspection and close setting of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experiences in synagogue, the holiday of Sukkot provides the sharpest of contrasts. Rather than continue to focus on our innermost thoughts and deeds, we are commanded to get outside—outside of our selves, and outside of our homes, eating our meals under the stars.
This reminder for Jews to keep balance in their lives, to be in touch with nature as well as the prayer book, strikes me each year on my visit to the hardware store in preparation for the holiday. I smile on seeing bookish young Torah scholars inquiring about hammers, pliers and extension cords, part of the annual imperative—and opportunity—to forego the study hall for a week for the mitzvah of eating (and for some, sleeping) in the sukkah.
God commands us: “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 am the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:42–43) In this way we recall the wanderings of our ancestors in the desert for 40 years, between their exodus from Egypt and their entering the Promised Land of milk and honey. They had no permanent shelter during those four decades, but were protected by God’s presence in the form of a cloud by day and fire at night, with manna falling from the heavens each weekday to provide nourishment.
The ancient holiday of Sukkot is perfectly in sync with current cultural values, from its emphasis on agriculture, celebrating the harvest—symbolized by the unity of the four species in the lulav and etrog we hold during prayer—to the practical message of our reliance on and appreciation of nature as we sit in our sukkot, vulnerable to the elements.
The key component of the sukkah is the s’chach, or roof, which must be made from organic material, such as bamboo or cornhusks; no nails or metal are permitted. And the roof must be thick enough to provide mostly shade but be open enough to let some sunlight in during the day and to see the stars at night.