The Essence of Sukkot
What is the meaning of the celebration of Sukkot? The question seems unnecessary since there is a biblical paragraph that gives a very explicit explanation: “You shall live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23: 42-43).
Nevertheless, these same verses prompt us to ask the question: If the celebration comes in order to remember the help given by God to the people of Israel during its wandering in the wilderness —which occurred immediately after all the miracles done in Egypt and at the sea to break the yoke of slavery they suffered there — why not recall everything during Pesaḥ (the feast of Passover)? Why it is necessary to commemorate the two historical events separately when both of them are so deeply related, one being the consequence of the other?
The departure from Egypt according to the biblical narrative is substantially different from the wandering in the wilderness. In the first, the participation of the people was passive. God was the one who fought for His people. In the second, people´s participation was intense. To go into the desert with children and elders, in the difficult and hostile desert, was a great demonstration of faith on the part of the people. Seven centuries after those events, the prophet Jeremiah exclaimed to the people of Judah: “This is what the Lord says: I remember the loyal devotion of your youth, your love as a bride. How you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer 2: 2).
Sukkot is essentially the festival of faith. Those who went into the desert on their way to freedom, needed total confidence in God. To leave the security given by brick houses and to live in flimsy shacks in order to attain spiritual goals is an act of faith. Sukkot is the time when (in the northern hemisphere) the farmer prays to God for rain, after tilling his earth, waiting for the germination of the seeds he has sowed. This is also a great manifestation of faith.
Sukkot also recalls the dedication of the Bet HaMikdash, the Temple of Jerusalem, the place where faith-filled people gathered to dialogue with God, because – according to 1 Kings 8 – the celebration of its inauguration was related to Sukkot. The word Sukka is used by the psalmist to refer the Temple of Jerusalem (27:5; 76:3), and by the prophet Amos about the restoration of the house of David in the time of redemption (Amos 9:11). Both dwellings refer to faith in God and in a time of universal peace to come. Zechariah (in chapter 14) foresees Sukkot as the festival in which all people will honor God with the most genuine joy, that which emanates from the deepest core of the human being after experiencing the divine presence.
After the spiritual labor done during the Yamim Noraim we reach a moment of contentment in which we contemplate and enjoy the meaningful things achieved in them, and from the renewed faith we have received. For that, Sukkot is the moment of highest joy, it is mentioned in the Talmud merely as “the festivity,” because there is only joy in it (Deuteronomy 16:15)
Chag Sameach! Happy Sukkot!