The roofless hut that is stronger than a castle

By Lord Jonathan Sacks, October 10, 2008

In these turbulent times, Succot shows us why we still have cause to celebrate.

What an era ours is. Iran is in pursuit of nuclear weapons, threatening to destroy Israel. The world seems suddenly full of rogue states, failed states, civil wars and ubiquitous terror. Financial markets are in turmoil. Rarely in my lifetime has the global economic and political future seemed less predictable. Ours is the age of uncertainty.

What has this to do with Succot? Everything. Succot is the festival of uncertainty. It's about how the Israelites lived in the desert for 40 years, without a land, a home, a place of safety, exposed to the elements and enemies.

It is one of the most remarkable features of Judaism that we have no festival to mark the entry of the Israelites into their land, none to mark the end of their battles in the days of Joshua, none to mark the day King David made Jerusalem Israel's capital 3,000 years ago. We are a people who remember not the arrival but the journey. We are the people who learned to celebrate in the midst of danger. We are the only people I know who could name the festival of uncertainty zeman simchatenu, "the time of our joy".

There is an argument in the Talmud about Succot, ostensibly minor, but actually one of the most significant in Jewish thought. The sages asked what exactly the succah represents. There were two conflicting views, those of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, both of whom lived in the late first and early second century.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, the succah represents the clouds of glory that accompanied the Israelites on their journey, sheltering them from the heat of the day, the cold of the night, and the slings and arrows of their adversaries.

Rabbi Akiva, however, says the succah represents itself, nothing more. It symbolises no divine miracle, no supernatural force, no superhuman protection. Our ancestors spent years living in temporary dwellings, and so do we, in their memory. A succah is a shed without a roof, not a symbol of the clouds of glory.

Rabbi Eliezer's view is simple and logical. Each of the festivals recalls a miracle, an intervention of God in history: on Pesach the exodus, on Shavuot the revelation at Mount Sinai, and on Succot, the way God protected His people in the wilderness years.

According to Rabbi Akiva, though, why do we celebrate Succot? Because our ancestors lived in shacks? There is nothing out of the ordinary in this. So does every desert dweller. Some Bedouin still do. What kind of festival did Rabbi Akiva believe Succot to be?

Rabbi Akiva was saying something very radical indeed, as he often did. What inspired him was a stunningly unusual verse in the book of Jeremiah. Read the Torah and you get a deeply negative impression of the Israelites in the wilderness. They complained about everything: the food, the water, the danger, the discomfort. At times they even said, "Let's go back to Egypt". One could almost be tempted, reading this story, to say, "How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews."

Jeremiah says something completely different in the name of God. "I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, how you were willing to follow Me into the desert, into an unsown land." Jeremiah answers the question: why did God choose the Jewish people? Because they were willing to take a risk, because they had the courage to do what Abraham did when he first heard the call of God: begin a journey, unsure of the obstacles they might encounter on the way, with no certainty other than faith itself that they would reach their destination.

The Israelites staked their future on a Divine promise. Yes, they were ungrateful, fractious, quarrelsome, but they never gave up. More than 3,000 years later, having survived some of the worst persecutions ever inflicted on a people, we still never give up. The stiff-necked people turned out to be the most tenacious in history.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva present us with two completely different views of faith. For Rabbi Eliezer, faith is certainty. For Rabbi Akiva, faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. It is easy to believe in a God who surrounds you with clouds of glory. It is hard to believe in a God who leads you into a wilderness with only His promise to sustain you and a shack in which to live.

For 2,000 years, Jews in the diaspora lived in temporary dwellings, without power or protection, exposed to every passing wind of anti-Jewish sentiment. Even in Israel, even today, Jews are exposed to risks no other nation would endure.

Yet Jewish life throughout the ages has been full of joy. That is the miracle.

To face risks with confidence and calm, to know that life is full of uncertainty yet still to celebrate: that is the special gift of Judaism, exemplified by Succot. You do not need to live beneath clouds of glory to celebrate God, said Rabbi Akiva.

Faith can live in the most fragile of temporary dwellings, but it is stronger than empires and longer-lasting than castles. Faith does not need clouds of glory to protect us from fear, or miracles to change the course of history.

Faith itself is a miracle, and its symbol is a hut without a roof.

Last updated: 11:50am, October 24 2008