Sukkot is thematic; it marks several events, not one. It attempts to express the bittersweet pain of fragility and dependence suffered by the People Israel during the desert wandering in the Sinai. The sukkah is meant to be a dwelling both temporary and tenuous, suspended between bare sufficiency and hopeful inadequacy. Living in a sukkah, if only for a week, encourages us to taste what lives are like when buffeted by the hostile elements of nature and the harmful forces unleashed by humans: inequality, hate and dishonesty.
As usual, the rabbis asked the essential question (even if it is usually the question that discomfits us most): “Why go out of way to remember things that are so painful?” Rashbam teaches us that Sukkot is scheduled to occur during the harvesting of corn and wine, “so that people will not commit the sin of pride as they behold their bulging warehouses.” Isaac Arama adds: “Like a poor person we enter a cramped, spare booth and find only a meal for one day and no furniture except a bed, table, chair and lamp.” Sukkot presents a balance between productivity and luxury, between asceticism and poverty. One may think of the Sukkah as a kind of Jewish analog to the monk’s cell or revival meeting tent of Christianity.
The mitzvah of leisheiv basukah, dwelling in a sukkah, is meant to be more than the instantiation of an ancient experience and the values it encapsulates; it is a reminder that the world today contains the same values held in the same delicate balance. It is as if the Rabbis provided for a future world in which Jews might be wealthy someday and so created a symbol to remind us in those days that sufficiency and insufficiency are separated by a knife blade of consciousness; the health of our souls hangs upon our awareness of that success can be change into failure, and failure contains within it the seeds of hope. The Torah tells us that the Ammonites and Moabites refused to provision us with water and bread when we were starving in the desert. The Torah expects us to strive to differentiate our action like theirs. Rambam (Maimonides) teaches: “One should not restrain the hands of the poor Gentile from gathering [from your fields] the gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and corners of the field …. All for the sake of peace.”
To mitzvah truly inhabit a fragile sukkah, the sukkah we each build points us to the global sukkah, the fragile sukkah that all humans inhabit. The values called to mind by the “balance” epitomized by the sukkah remind us to act upon the awareness of human need, to recreate our ancestors’ experience of God in the Sinai desert by supporting all people with the food, shelter and hope that God once made available to the Israelites.