by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Shelter is a primal human need, along with food and clean water and air to breathe. We’re constantly reminded of this need in most of our cities, where folks we label as “homeless” create encampments of tents and lean-tos to protect themselves from the elements. Beyond our primitive need of shelter, however, we might find ourselves yearning for a deeper shelter, which our observance of Sukkot hints at.
In the weeks leading up to Sukkot we read Psalm 27, which opens:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
“My light” alludes to Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of creation, which began with light. “My salvation” alludes to Yom Kippur, which commemorates the atonement that saves us from sin and its ravages. Sukkot makes its appearance a few verses later: “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock” (Psa 27:5).
His “shelter” in this verse is sukkah in Hebrew, an apt reminder of the joyous festival that follows Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but a surprising word in this context nevertheless. In the preceding verse David sings of the “house of the Lord” and the “temple,” or heykhal in the Hebrew, kingly terms befitting the God of Israel. To “inquire in his heykhal” speaks of approaching a sovereign enthroned amidst signs of his power and lordship. But God will shelter us in his sukkah, a simple hut, “like a sukkah in a vineyard . . . a lodge in a cucumber field” (Isa 1:8).
When we build a sukkah for the festival, it’s supposed to be a bit flimsy, with the stars shining through the roof at night. David says that on the day of trouble, God will shelter us in just this sort of structure, lending a profound insight into the nature of our God, and of the shelter that he provides for us. He is the great king, who dwells within the heavenly courts in glory beyond anything we can imagine, but he also meets us in the most ordinary surroundings. Indeed, he not only meets us there, but he surrounds us with his own presence in such circumstances. The great nineteenth-century rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, writes, “The simplest sukkah, the lowliest hut which will give me shelter, is sukko [his sukkah] to me. It is to me a shelter which He Himself has prepared for me. Yea, it is His tabernacle, the abode of His presence; it encompasses His presence even as it surrounds my own person.”
Now, our practice of building and living in a sukkah is a response to Hashem’s instruction: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 23:42–43). But, paradoxically, in the entire account of our wanderings in the wilderness, apart from this one reference, the Torah never actually says God “made the people of Israel dwell in booths.” As the Jewish Study Bible notes, “The notion that God housed the Israelites in booths in the wilderness is not attested elsewhere.” What is attested, however, is that the glory-cloud of God’s presence went with us throughout our wanderings in the wilderness, leading some of our sages to claim that the sukkah represents the glory-cloud, as Ben Volman pointed out in last week’s commentary: “R. Eliezer says they were booths, literally; R. Akiva says they were clouds of glory” (Sifra, Emor 17:11).
Just as the literal sense of “sukkah” as a simple, makeshift booth points to the true source of shelter throughout the year, so does this more imaginative sense of “sukkah” as the glory-cloud. And so we might ask, as Sukkot draws to a close, how do we stay in this sukkah, not just for eight days, but every day?
The instructions for Sukkot hint at an answer to this question. The festival concludes with Shemini Atzeret, an eighth day of assembly, as ordained in Leviticus 23:36: “For seven days you shall present food offerings to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present a food offering to the Lord. It is a solemn assembly—atzeret—you shall not do any ordinary work.” Rashi comments:
This is analogous to a king who invited his children to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said, “My children! Please stay with me just one more day, for it is difficult for me to part with you!”
The sukkah we build and inhabit each year reminds us that we’re not going to find our security in wealth, influence, man-made power, or the reliability of this present world-system, but only in God-our-shelter. So how do we stay in this sukkah? Shemini Atzeret reminds us that God wants to meet us there even more than we want to meet him. Just as he places his glory-cloud in the midst of Israel in the wilderness, so he places himself with us in our wanderings each day. When we physically move out of our worldly shelters during Sukkot, we can move out spiritually as well. We enact this reality for eight days each year, but we can remember its truth every day of our year: our real shelter isn’t in the human resources we amass, but in God himself.
Just as we gather the materials and build the sukkah with our own hands, so we can build a daily encounter with God. Step one is realizing that God desires this encounter even more than we do. Christian writer Albert Haase speaks of “God’s ardent longing and enthusiastic invitation to a deeper relationship” (in Becoming an Ordinary Mystic). As we remain aware of that invitation, the next step is to find a specific time and place each day to respond. We move out of the worries, preoccupations, and endless distractions of our own houses, at least for a few moments, and present ourselves to him. We tune out the endless noise of information and disinformation and quietly listen for the voice of the Spirit, both in Scripture and within our own souls, knowing we are under God’s cloud.
Rabbi Hirsch notes that the sukkah encompasses God’s very presence, and Rashi notes that God wants to be with us there. I’ll add that the sukkah’s lowliness hints at Messiah Yeshua, who comes to bear God’s presence among us, not in the unapproachable glory of the temple courts, but in the simplicity of a sukkah, in a form like our own. He appears within the long tale of human history as a simple Galilean, Yeshua the Nazarene, but he bears the glory of God. He brings us into the very presence of God, as we turn from our ways to reunite with him.
As we conclude the eight days of Sukkot, let’s resolve to stay within this sukkah each day in the year ahead.