The command and proper fulfillment of the mitzvah of Sukkah involves many areas of Jewish law. These laws include the proper materials and construction of the walls as well as the special roof of the Sukkah called “s’chach,” סכך. The ultimate fulfillment of the mitzvah of Sukkah, however, is only realized when we use it as our living quarters for the entire holiday. Simply put, the Sukkah is our place of residence for the week.
What is the philosophy behind this unique mitzvah? In this particular case the Torah gives the reason. “So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt; I am Hashem, your God.” (Vayikra 23:43) Isn’t Hashem the cause of every mitzvah? We live in a Sukkah or give tzedaka because God took us out of Egypt to obey the Torah. So how do we make the specific connection between living in this structure and knowing Hashem is the cause?
Knowledge of God is at the core of Judaism. The Rambam writes at the beginning of his code of law, the Mishnah Torah, “The very first mitzvah of all the positive mitzvoth is ‘To know there is a God.’” After we fulfill that command to know that God exists apparently we are not done. The mitzvah of Sukkah is commanded in order to inculcate some particular knowledge or aspect of God. What is it?
Interestingly the Talmud Sukkah, 11b, brings down an argument between two scholars of the Mishnah. They dispute the understanding of the verse cited above. Does the “Sukkah” in the verse refer to an actual booth or structure the Children of Israel lived in during their 40 years in the desert or does the word “Sukkah” refer to the “Clouds of Glory,” ענני כבוד , which shielded the Children of Israel from the intense heat of the sun for 40 years in the desert? The first opinion is that of Rabbi Akiva and the second is presented by Rabbi Eliezer.
All of the sages agree that the word Sukkah derives from the special roof of the Sukkah called “s’chach.” The essential feature of the Sukkah, the component under which we must dwell or reside to fulfill the command, is the “s’chach.” This special roof should be built in such a way that it provides more shade than sun and when dwelling at night, allows the moon and stars to be seen through it.
It is from the very character of the “s’chach” that the philosophy behind the mitzvah of Sukkah is reflected. This idea is true whether you agree with Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Eliezer. The Ramban in his commentary on the Chumash, Vayikrah 23:43, writes that according to Rabbi Akiva, the Sukkah we build and use for the mitzvah is “for us to remember that when the Children of Israel were in the wilderness not only did they not live in homes, “they found no city of habitation for 40 years, but God was with them and they lacked nothing.” Rabbi Eliezer, based on a verse from Isaiah 4:5-6, says the Sukkah recalls the protecting cloud cover provided by God for the 40 years the Children of Israel sojourned in the wilderness.
Both opinions reach the same conclusion. Not only is there a God but God is the only “שומר ישראל”, the true guardian of Israel. When we look up through the roof of the Sukkah at night and see the stars, it causes us to reflect on the vastness of the cosmos and its Creator. That same Creator is the cause of Israel’s continued existence whether by protecting clouds in the desert or by providing for their every need. The people lacked nothing necessary for human existence regardless of the fact that there were no habitable places with which to shop and trade.
The mitzvah of Sukkah teaches this important concept of God. God’s will for the continued existence of the nation of Israel is part of the very fabric of the universe. Miraculous living conditions will be provide for this nation, when necessary, to insure its eternal existence. Hence knowledge of the Creator of the universe is incomplete unless we also know He relates directly to the nation of Israel.
This idea is also capture in this week’s Torah portion, “Haazinu.” Here God calls the heavens and earth to serve as witnesses when Israel sins and when Israel is righteous. How can the heavens and earth serve in this capacity? The Torah means their testimony is by way of verification. Testimonials by the heavens and earth are the best Israel could have. Their very existence is the first necessary step in the existence of the nation of Israel. Their entire purpose of existence is for the sake of Israel. The prophet Jeremiah succinctly stated, “So says Hashem, if not for my covenant with Israel day and night, I would never have enacted the laws of physics governing the heavens and earth.” Simply, heaven and earth have no independent purpose for their existence.
The mitzvah of Sukkah is designed to inculcate this important idea into human comprehension. Not only is there a one, non-physical Creator of the universe but this Creator directly provides for the needs, protection and continued existence of one nation in specific, the people of Israel. When we look up at the roof of the Sukkah and see the night sky in all its splendor, it should cause us to reflect upon the cause of our eternal existence not just the cause of our doing mitzvoth in general. Our national existence is guaranteed to us by the words of God in parshat Haazinu and this philosophic idea, God’s special relationship to Israel is reinforced annually by the mitzvah of Sukkah.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan