The specifications for building a sukkah are both arcane and fascinating. The roof must be built from material (which is called schach) that comes from living source. Branches, bamboo in its various forms, and palm fronds are popular choices.
It must be arranged in a way in which the amount of shade is greater than the amount of sunshine that can enter the sukkah. The arrangement of the schach should be such as to give us a view of the stars.
The sukkah must be constructed in a way in which it is an inherently temporary structure.
In addition, the sukkah itself must be constructed in a way in which it is an inherently temporary structure. While it may have permanent walls (it may have four, but is ritually fit even with two and a half walls), its roof must be of an interim nature. The roof, therefore, must be rebuilt yearly.
Throughout the holiday, we are required to spend as much time as possible in the sukkah, and to treat it as our home. This often opens us to reflecting on the fact that by this time of year the weather is rather nippy, and had the holiday been set a month earlier we would find the sukkah a comfortable shady spot to sit in the balmy weather.
Let us examine each detail of these laws in order to grasp the elation that this, the most joyous of all holidays, can bring us.
SEEING GOD'S PRESENCE
The holiday itself celebrates the fact that as we traveled forty years in the desert, we were surrounded by God's presence. The physical manifestation of His encompassing love and protection were the clouds that encircled us. The laws concerning the construction of the sukkah are there to provide us with the opportunity to relive the experience of feeling God's life-force surrounding us without the distractions that blind us to Him.
By leaving the deceptive permanence of our homes, we let go of the first and most damaging illusion that blocks our inner eye from seeing God's presence. This is the illusion that material security protects our vulnerability. But nothing material is eternal; the feeling of security and stability that comes from possessions is transient. The only enduring possession that any of us have is our essence. Still, the illusion of permanence is one that we are reluctant to surrender, because, without it, we feel as if we are abandoned to an unknowable fate.
The solid stone, bricks and mortar of our homes create the ambiance of security which is not real. The inherent impermanence of the sukkah forces us into encountering reality. But in the very impermanence of the sukkah lies its security, because here we realize we are not alone! The reality that we face does not have to terrify us.
The sukkah is a living allegory for our world.
The schach symbolizes to us that the world in which we live is very much one in which God is with us. Although there is more darkness than light, we still see the stars.
The sukkah is a living allegory for our world, which presents us with far more questions than there are answers that human wisdom can provide. However, what makes this world a place of meaning rather than one of despair is the fact that we can see what the stars embody -- brilliance and illumination. We yearn for meaning and we find it when we focus our inner eye on the stars.
The Talmud tells us that it is no coincidence that the time of year that we celebrate our trust in God is the fall. The timing of Sukkot seems almost arbitrary. After all our stay in the desert took place over forty years, rather than a particular week in the year. The timing of Sukkot, no less than the physical structure of the sukkah is an integral statement of our identity. We are not leaving our homes for relief from the heat of summer, we are leaving our homes to experience our vulnerability. It is only then that we are not blinded to God's love.
PATHS OF THE JUST
Feeling beloved is not always easy. We all have times in our lives in which our faith is sorely tested. We lose sight of the invisible clouds of glory and fire that surround us. The classical 18th century Mussar work, "The Paths of the Righteous," explains how we often blind ourselves to the stars and presents four different ways to a solution.
One way to clear our vision is to recognize that God is far more compassionate than we are. It is only through His mercy that we survive either physically or emotionally all the absurd errors of judgment that have taken us to the brink of disaster. We have always been enveloped in His cloud. When we reflect on the compassion we have experienced as a result of His presence in our lives in the past, we get a new take on the present and the future. Hope suddenly seems pragmatic and realistic, while despair can be seen a naïve escape mechanism, which is what it is.
Another way to clear our vision is to become aware that all of the acts of kindness that have been done on our behalf by friends and relatives, ultimately are from God. We have paid for nothing -- not the air we breathe, nor the earth upon which we stand -- nor for the means by which other human beings can help us. The inspiration from their altruism stems from God; what they do for us is a gift from God.
We can never begin to repay what we have received not only from humans, but from God. We must be willing to be vulnerable enough to feel gratitude. This thought counteracts the "entitlement" mentality that clouds our ability to recognize goodness.
The third way to clear our vision is to re-define the word "possible." We must always keep in mind that with God anything is truly possible because God is not limited by any restrictions. Nothing can happen against His will, and nothing can prevent His will from being realized. Observing the ceaseless movement of the constellations and their timeless beauty can bring us back to this realization. We are in God's hand just as they are. While the people in our lives may affect us, ultimately they are not more than His agents.
We are in God's hand just as much as the stars and the constellations are.
The final thought in Rabbi Luzzatto's collection is that facing challenges is what life is for. We Jews are not designed for "permanent housing." We were designed for the Sukkah. The idealization of complacency has never sat well with us. When we are forced to travel the fast lane, we can be energized or frightened. It is a choice that we all make in the moments in which our faith is tested. The more we can envision the eternity of the Sukkah, the more we can welcome the trek through whatever type of "desert" God requires us to travel.
These four ways can be transformational.
What is even more powerful is actually coming into contact with the mitzvah of sukkah in the literal sense. Our nature is that we are less readily moved by realizations and thoughts, than by actions, because actions often redefine our capacity to think along new and untried patterns.
May this year bring us the joy of learning to feel and acknowledge what has been true all along. We are in God's sukkah and always have been.