By Shlomo Riskin
“You shall dwell in booths for seven days… 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…” (Leviticus 23:42-43)
Why do we sit in the sukkah for seven days? This question is most significant because of the introductory verse, “so that your generations may know.” Although Maimonides rules that the reason for a commandment does not necessarily have to be understood in order for it to be fulfilled, many important religious personalities (like Reb Haim of Brisk) maintain that knowing the proper reason for the commandment of sukkah is mandated by the words of this verse.
What makes this problematic is that there is a difference of opinion among our Sages as to what the sukkah symbolizes: Does the sukkah remind us of the simple desert huts within which the Hebrews lived during their various desert encampments, primitive dwelling places that did not always protect from the torrid heat by day and the freezing cold by night? Or rather, is the sukkah a symbol of the clouds of glory, the rays of splendor by which the Divine Presence encompassed the Hebrew nomads, a foretaste of the Holy Temple that would eventually connect heaven and earth? (See Talmud Sukkah 11b)
In a similar fashion, Ecclesiastes 1:2 seems to have two different visions of life, one of which is epitomized by the opening verse, “A breath of breaths, says Kohelet, a breath of breaths, everything is a breath,” versus “The end of the issue, everything having been heard: fear the Lord and observe His commandments for that is the whole of the human being” (12:13). The key word in the opening verse is “breath” – hevel in Hebrew. “Hevel,” which literally means a breath and generally refers to the oxygen vapor that emerges from an individual’s mouth on a cold day, is very much devoid of substance and disappears almost as quickly as it comes. It seems to represent the emptiness and flimsiness of human existence. Indeed, many English translations render the Hebrew “hevel” as “futility” or “vanity.” The concluding verse, on the other hand, seems to view the human being as an individual worthy of being commanded by God and is therefore able to give his life ultimate and even transcendent meaning by dedicating himself to the performance of God’s commandments. Which is the correct interpretation, not only of Kohelet but also of life itself?
I believe that the answer to our query will come from a critical verse describing the creation of the first human being, which occurred on Rosh Hashana: “And the Lord God formed the human being of dust from the earth and He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the human being became a living creature.” In effect, that part of God within each of us is the breath of God which He exhaled.
And when this verse of creation concludes with the words “and the human being became a living creature,” the officially accepted commentator Onkeles renders this to mean “a communicating spirit.” Such a translation implies that the ability of a human being to communicate, to expel breaths in conversation, may be a most exalted expression of the image of the Divine within each of us. The Ten Commandments created by Divine speech were far more powerful than the Egyptian pyramids. The Gettysburg address had a far greater affect than military weaponry.
And so the hassidim have an amazing interpretation for the liturgical statement in our Ne’ila Prayer on Yom Kippur, “the difference between the human being and the animal is not at all, for everything is a breath.” The hassidim take the line as follows: the difference between the human being and the animal is infinite, ein sof, the infinite God whose Divine breath is within every human. After all, everything is within that breath.
Apparently, there is room to view the human being as a broken shard, a passing dream, a fleeting breath; but at the same time we can see the human being as the carrier of the very breath and stuff of the Divine, who has the ability to transcend himself and his generation by means of the spoken and written word and who can influence God by his prayers and his actions. He is “only a little lower than God crowned with glory and majesty” (Psalms 8: 5-6). And the truth is, both of these visions are true; which one will emerge victorious in every single human being depends upon that human being himself.
So it is with the sukkah. It appears to be a flimsy structure that hardly protects against oppressive heat and is not at all impervious to rains and winds. Nevertheless, when we bring into the sukkah the Special Guests (ushpizin), our patriarchs and matriarchs, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and King David, and when we decorate the sukkah with pictures of the Holy Temple and the High Priest at his sacred service, and when we sanctify the sukkah with blessings over the four species, kiddush wine, songs of praise and words of Torah which accompany our Succot meals, and most of all when we fill the sukkah with familial and universal love, we transform that flimsy structure into the rays of splendor of the eternal House of God which unites heaven and earth.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.