Dr. Jonathan Mirvis is the International Director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Institute.
A central mitzvah in the Festival of Sukkot is the commandment to dwell in sukkot. This precept is stated in Vayikra 23:42 And you shall dwell in sukkot for seven days, every person in Israel (the people) shall dwell in sukkot; in order to ensure that your generations will know that I placed the children of Israel in sukkot when I took them out of Egypt, I am the L-rd.
In the desert there were a number of ongoing miracles, the manna that came from heaven, the numerous sources of water and other such life sustaining events. Why was the dwelling in sukkot singled out as that experience that should be significantly remembered on an annual basis engraving itself in the historical memory of the Jewish people?
In trying to analyze the significance of this mitzvah it is important to focus on the physical requirements of the structure that define it as a sukkah For a dwelling to be a sukkah it has to have at least three secure walls that will withstand the natural elements and a porous ceiling of vegetation that on the one hand offers more shade than sun but on the other does not provide the protection of a conventional roof.
This structure may be defined as temporary from one perspective and permanent from another. The secure walls give the structure a sense of permanence however the porous ceiling that has to be laid each year, specifically for the purpose of the sukkah, is very much temporary.
This permanent-temporary structure that we are commanded to dwell in on Sukkot is a paradigm of life offering a perspective on how we should approach our existence in this world. In planning our life structure we should strive for it to be as secure as possible. We should do all we can to ensure our physical and financial security, and to withstand the natural elements that threaten our daily existence. However, we should be eternally conscious that existentially our being in this world is temporary and permeable. At any given moment we many be forced to evacuate, forced to do so by unexpected rains from above.
The sojourn in the desert was not only a passage on the way to the Promised Land, it was also an educational experience that would impact the Jewish people from generation to generation. Thus G-ds placing the people in sukkot was only a mechanism of protection. It was an attempt to tangibly educate the Jewish people about the desired approach to life, encouraging them to create secure structures yet to be aware of their existential insecure nature.
Indeed if this was a motivation for placing the Jews in sukkot in the desert, we can understand why we are asked to relive this experience from generation to generation. In building our sukkot and by dwelling therein for seven days, we are encouraged to contemplate the structure of our existence and meaning of life. It is critical that we not be blinded by our securities and that we are conscious of our porous temporary ceilings.
May we all have the privilege of dwelling in sukkot this year enjoying a rain free festival, providing us the opportunity to contemplate the existential meaning of this festival.