What Sukkot Asks of Us

October 5, 2020

Exploring the Value-Concepts embedded in Sukkot

I want to begin with something called, a value-concept. It comes from Max Kadushin’s book, The Rabbinic Mind, and I’ve been slowly reading it throughout the High Holiday season. Max Kadushin was ordained from JTS in 1920, worked with Kaplan on developing Reconstructionist Judaism and its ideas, and ultimately worked as a congregational rabbi. His work is foundational to understanding Conservative Judaism.

He explains that Rabbinic Judaism is not built on a logical system of ideas constructed into a hierarchy but instead as an organism of ideas, a network of concepts that are constantly interacting with one another. They retain some unique quality to them, a shared understanding of their meaning, but always refracted by how it is used at that moment.

He says:

This compound term has the great advantage of pointing, through its two components, to two important things. The component “concepts” tells that the values referred to are communicable ideas, that is, ideas that may be shared by the group as a whole; whilst the component “value” tells that the ideas are nevertheless also, in a degree, personal and subjective, and that they are ideas held warmly.”

Kadushin instructs us to look at our texts and draw out the value-concepts as a way of understanding the ideas and their interactions.

But let us dig into Sukkot in specific and try to draw out some wisdom.

In Leviticus 23:42-43 it reads:

בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת׃ לְמַעַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

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.

The value-concepts that call out to me are:

  • yeshivah, dwelling,

  • benei yisrael, Israel as a people,

  • yidiyat doroteichem, the knowledge of future generations, and,

  • yitziyat mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt.

We primarily focus on the first one, but each is essential to our understanding of this holiday and what it means for us. 

Yeshivah, dwelling

As it is written in the verse, teishvu, you shall dwell. This instructs us to build sukkot and make them our homes. We decorate them, we eat in them, and we, presumably, sleep in them. On the very first page of Masechet Sukkah, the tractate dealing with Sukkot in the Talmud, Rava teaches:

From the following verse, “You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days” (Leviticus 23:42) the Torah declared: For seven days leave your permanent dwelling place and dwell in a temporary dwelling place.

Dirat Aarai, a temporary dwelling place. This is how we usually understand the nature of our sukkot. This flipped-upside-down nature of Sukkot is there to teach us about the fragility of life and our gratitude for our bounty. We too are out in the fields gazing upon our crops each year. We too are the Israelites in the desert, sheltered by God’s glory.

This temporary quality is also larger than just Sukkot. It is a reminder of our temporary nature. Our lives, in the scheme of the universe, are merely a spark of existence. We’re here on Earth for just that brief moment. We are then led to ask, who am I? What do I do with this moment that I have?

Benei Yisrael, the people of Israel

This is connected here with the concept of kol haezrach B’Yisrael, “all citizens of Israel.” We are a people who take on the responsibilities of those around us. Just like with Shabbat, it is not just Jews who are free from labor, but everyone we are responsible for, including animals, cannot be put to work. 

Here, the instruction is that we must see others as we see ourselves, deserving of dignity, of justice, and of compassion. Kol Israel Arevim zeh la’zeh, All of Israel is responsible for one another. Dr. Reuven Firestone explains that arevim is about arev, being a guarantor for a loan. We are each the backstop for one another. If everything goes wrong, we are there for each other. 

Yidiyat Doroteichem

This is the knowledge of future generations, should sound familiar as it is so interconnected with Yitziyat mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt.

Our core Passover celebrations are bound up in these two ideas. So what is it doing here? Remember, value-concepts are impacted by the contexts in which they are applied.

First, we can understand that from the perspective of the narrative, the Israelites are in the desert, trying to survive the elements and bad actors along the way after leaving Egypt! They are in the most “temporary” part of the journey, in-between Egypt and the promised land. However, their temporary journey lasts them forty years and no one born in Egypt survives the trip.

But more than that, we are to remember where we came from, what guides us. Yeidu, as it is written in the text, more literally translated as they shall know, is a statement of comprehension. That our task on this earth is to leave a legacy, to teach our children, to have made a difference to what comes after us. 

Together, the constellation of these value-concepts, shifting, molding, interacting, leads me to see that our task, as Jews, dwelling in our sukkot, is to be responsible for the other, for our children, to the story that weaves through us.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, known as the Velveteen Rabbi, wrote last year about Sukkot,

“Sukkot says: keep your heart open a little longer.

Sukkot is an opportunity to keep our hearts open wide. We build and decorate these fragile little houses. Their roofs have to be made out of plants that are harvested from the earth, and open enough to let in the stars and the rain.

A sukkah is almost a sketch of a house, a parody of a house. A hint of a house. You can see the outlines of a house, but it’s flimsy and the roof leaks and as soon as it’s built, it starts succumbing to the rain and the wind and the weather.

Our bodies are like sukkot. Our lives are like sukkot. The whole planet is like a sukkah. It’s heartbreaking, when we let ourselves stop and feel it. But here’s the thing: when we let ourselves stop and feel it, that’s when we let God in.”

This is the key to our responsibility to others, to have an open heart. To empathize and understand, to listen and to feel.

Right now, we are broken.

Our society, our country, we are broken. We stopped opening our hearts. We have stopped listening and stopped trying to understand one another. We have forgotten our responsibility.

This upcoming Shabbat, we will read in the book of Kohelet 5:7:

אִם־עֹ֣שֶׁק רָ֠שׁ וְגֵ֨זֶל מִשְׁפָּ֤ט וָצֶ֙דֶק֙ תִּרְאֶ֣ה בַמְּדִינָ֔ה אַל־תִּתְמַ֖הּ עַל־הַחֵ֑פֶץ כִּ֣י גָבֹ֜הַּ מֵעַ֤ל גָּבֹ֙הַ֙ שֹׁמֵ֔ר וּגְבֹהִ֖ים עֲלֵיהֶֽם׃

If you see in a province oppression of the poor and suppression of right and justice, don’t wonder at the fact; for one high official is protected by a higher one, and both of them by still higher ones.

Corruption, oppression, suppression of justice. This is what we have sown. It is what we are reaping.

Rashi explains, regarding this verse,

“If you see that they oppress the poor and deprive [them of] justice, and you see charity coming toward the city, [i.e.,] that the Holy One, Blessed Is God, lavishes goodness upon them and does not mete out retribution upon them, do not wonder about the will of the Omnipresent, for so is God’s custom, to be slow to anger.”

In other words, when those who do injustice seem to be successful, know that this is because God is slow to anger. This is a quality we like in God, when that anger is directed at us. When we have transgressed, when we have sinned. We just spent the last two weeks grateful for God’s slowness to anger. 

How do we deal with this seeming contradiction?

God is inviting us to act.

God is encouraging us to seek justice. To “not wonder at the fact” but to seize the opportunity to make the world a better place. To make kindness, understanding, equity, and justice constant in our lives. 

I was reflecting on the news with my friend Josiah Gilliam this week, we talked about the presidential debates, the grand jury results for Breonna Taylor, the frustrations we were feeling. The overwhelming pressure pushing down on our shared optimism.

Having grown up at his father’s church, we often share teachings between us. Verses and stories that speak to us, that are meaningful to us. I was telling him about the midrash about the lulav and the etrog. How they represent the different parts of the community and that when we grasp them all together like we did this morning for the first time on Sukkot, we are manifesting the idea of unity. The value-concept of achdut, if you will.

In response, he shared this verse from Isaiah 56:1:

“Thus said the LORD: Observe what is right and do what is just; For soon My salvation shall come, And my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the one who does this, The one who holds fast to it: Who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it, And stays their hand from doing any evil.” 

This is how Josiah explained it,

“[Justice] requires maintenance not just moral leanings! [The verse is using] active language…[this is] mirrored in the idea of “holding it fast” because it can get away without diligence.”

Holding fast, yachzik, is the same word we use for Torah. 

It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, machazikim bah. 

If we wish our community, our country, our society to be healthy, to be just and equitable, we must hold on fast. We must grasp it like the lulav and etrog, making unity core to our ambitions. We must reflect on our temporariness, as we dwell in our sukkot. And we must stay responsible to one another, as we teach our children. 

Moadim L’simchah, chag sameach. 

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.