How the succah comes to symbolise our diversity

Succot represent the booths that sheltered the Israelites in their journey in the wilderness ­— or do they?


Jewish woman and child visiting their family Sukkah in the Jewish festival of Sukkot. A Sukkah is a temporary structure where meals are taken for the week.

Is it really necessary to move out of our homes and construct temporary booths with roofs made of vegetation (s’chach) for seven days?

If anything, especially with the impeccably timed English rain, Succot feels like an anticlimax after the High Holy Days, rather than the continuation of them.

This month of festivals is somewhat of a rollercoaster. Jumping off after Yom Kippur is leaving at the height of the ride; Succot takes us to the landing. You could say that the earthiness of the succah brings the abstract ethereal call of the shofar down to earth.

The purpose of sitting in the succah is “in order that your generations should know that I housed the children of Israel in succot when I took them out of the land of Egypt”.

What are these succot we are remembering?

This is the subject of a well-known talmudic debate. Rabbi Akiva contends that God provided the Israelites with physical booths to survive the harsh conditions of the desert.

The medieval philosopher and poet Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra explained that there was a forest of acacia trees near Mount Sinai. The Israelites chopped them down, and used the wood to build themselves small huts. It is these succot that we faithfully remember each year.

Yet Rabbi Eliezer (and most other sages both then and subsequently) viewed the succot described as something more metaphorical.

Succot refer to the clouds of glory that accompanied the Jewish people in the wilderness. There are varying opinions as to how many clouds there were, and the function of each one, but ultimately the clouds reflect Divine help.

By going out to a succah that is open to the elements, we expose our vulnerability.

It is at that point we can reflect on how God helped our ancestors and how we feel His presence in our lives today.

My grandfather Rabbi Maurice Lew summarised this debate as being between “historical Judaism” and “religious Judaism”.

Rabbi Akiva and Ibn Ezra, albeit spanning different millennia, both had cause to revel in physical Jewish existence.

Having been a poor shepherd for the first half of his life, Rabbi Akiva knew what it was to be exposed to the elements. From the latter years of increasing Roman oppression, he understood the resilience required to physically survive in difficult conditions.

Ibn Ezra suffered greatly in his lifetime and spent three decades as a wanderer. As such, these characters knew the value of Jewish survival.

Shelter in the desert was enough of a coup to generate an entire festival. Seen in this light, Succot is about taking the spiritual ideals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and bringing them down into the practical realm of our everyday lives.

The festival provides a bridge back into the world of routine where we seek the hand of God in the details of our mundane run of the mill existence.

On the other hand, at the time of the Exodus we lived off miracles.

The succot God provided were one example, but so were the manna, water sprouting in a desert and miraculous victories in battle. Shelter does not stand out as more worthy to warrant its own seven-day festival.

If succot symbolise the clouds of Divine glory, they commemorate God’s support, direction and nurture, which sounds more compelling to generate such festivities. Indeed, the word s’chach, referring to the roof of the succah, is used in the Bible to describe the residing of the Divine Presence in the Temple.

Rabbi Eliezer highlighted the power of such spirituality in his interpretation. It is likely that he too was influenced by his life circumstances. Denied an education and pushed into the family business as an agricultural labourer, he craved something more.

In an extremely bold move, he left home and sought out Torah learning in the main academy in Yavneh. With no home and no sustenance, he went for days without food.

Content with the nourishment of his new-found spirituality, Eliezer would have continued, except that his stale breath let on to the head of the academy that the young prodigy needed some home-cooked food and TLC.

Historical Judaism and religious Judaism are both integral parts of our identity as a nation.

Some of us connect more with historical Judaism, the indomitable spirit of the Jew and our shared history and traditions. Others feel a magnetic pull to the religious aspects of our story.

Succot invites us to not just look at a succah, but to sit in it. In so doing the succah sends us a message, that whether historic or religious, we are inside the Jewish story.

There is no conclusion in the Talmud as to what the succot actually were, perhaps to leave room for both interpretations.

The succah is an inclusive space, one where various threads can coexist to form a multicoloured tapestry of diverse unity. This is the last and critical part of the Tishri rollercoaster.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur recognise the divinity inherent in all humanity and the potential for each of us to connect with God. Succot offers the opportunity for that belief to be turned into a reality, celebrating our diversity together.

Lauren Levin is a rebbetzin at South Hampstead (United) Synagogue

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