Sukkot, First Day, Leviticus 22:26 - 23:44
The sukkah is a symbol both of God's protection and of our insecurity
Some of the more memorable characters in the arts are also the least happy. While dramas are full of tragic leads, it is often in comedy that these individuals stand out. You don't have to go too far back in time to find examples. For Marvin the robot from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy every cloud was dark, and if perchance there was a silver lining, it was inevitably tarnished. Four decades before Marvin charmed us, North Americans were introduced to the character of Joe Btfsplk in L'il Abner. Poor Joe was a well meaning shmo (Yiddish for a fool), who literally went around with a cloud over his head, leaving bad luck in his wake.
Another character who is under a cloud, both figuratively and literally, is Jonah, he of the eponymous biblical book that we just read on Yom Kippur. We normally don't think of Jonah as a side-splitting tale, but look at it closely and you will see that is quite funny.
Jonah's comic predicament forms a transition between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. At the very end of the tale Jonah is upset because a merciful God has forgiven the citizens of Nineveh. Now Jonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a booth (sukkah) there and sat under it in the shade… (Jonah 4:5)
The Talmudic discussion in tractate Sukkah begins by informing us that a sukkah must provide more shade than sunlight. The defining characteristic of the sukkah is that it provides shade. The sukkah as a booth that provides protection from the sun may be derived from the festival's connection to the Fall harvest. After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. (Deuteronomy 16:13) What better protection is there from the scorching Middle Eastern sun than a temporary booth set up for those labouring to gather the harvest?
Jonah wasn't exactly harvesting crops. His sukkah may have reflected the understanding of this symbol found in the portion read on the first day of Sukkot:
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.Leviticus 23:42-43
The irony in Jonah is that God demonstrated to Jonah the flimsiness of this structure. Jonah built the structure; God caused a plant to grow next to it to provide shade and then made the plant wither. Then God brought strong winds that rattled the sukkah. Throughout the story Jonah is under a cloud and never moreso that in his sukkah. God was demonstrating to Jonah how precarious such a structure really is unless protected by the Almighty.
The Book of Jonah's view of the sukkah as a physical booth is similar to the interpretation given by Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud (Sukkah 11b). A completely different take is provided by Rabbi Eliezer, who gives us an inkling of what God is trying to teach Jonah: For Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkah is nothing less than the divine clouds of glory (ananei kavod). If Jonah would come out from under his personal cloud, he might actually end up on cloud nine.
Rabbi Eliezer didn't have his head in the clouds when he associated the sukkah with clouds and Divine protection. Such a connection exists in the Bible (Psalms 18:12, Job 36:29) where a dense cloud covering is associated with God's "pavilion."
It is quite odd that the most powerful connection between clouds, God's protective presence, and the sukkah does not appear in the Torah readings for Sukkot. When our ancestors tasted freedom after the Exodus, they were guided by God in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. (Exodus 13:21-22) Where did we first encounter this pillar of cloud? In a place called Sukkot (Exodus 12:37).
What a contrast: Jonah tried to flee from God and found his booth to be a flimsy shelter providing little protection. Our ancestors, guided by God, found freedom.
The real achievement of freedom does not come in one day; there is no quick cure for slavery. The liberated person is the one who learns to accept the daily challenges of existence as the expression of self-fulfillment and responsibility. Sukkot commemorates the maturation of the Israelites, achieved not in crossing the Red Sea but in walking the long way to freedom.The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, p. 97
Which is it: Jonah or the Exodus? The sukkah is a symbol both of God's protection and of our insecurity; no wonder it is such a delicate structure. Are we entering a structure that is constructed of the dark cloud of human frailty, or one that encompasses the clouds of glory and Divine potential? The choice is ours and has been since our ancestors stepped into freedom when they set foot in the ancient city of Sukkot.
Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Michal Shekel