By Max Hollander
Every year, after the intense period of the High Holidays, the Jewish people escape the confines of their everyday routine and reside within sukkot — or booths — for one week. But what exactly is a sukkah, and why are sukkot and our experience in the desert significant?
The Torah never outlines what a sukkah should actually look like, but the oral tradition defines a sukkah as a “temporary dwelling.” Temporary dwellings, as the Talmud explains, differ from permanent ones through their construction. The Talmud discusses guidelines for what roofing material is permissible, the size and shape of a sukkah and what the walls can be made of.
Curiously, while sukkot are temporary structures, the Talmud requires the walls to maintain a certain level of resilience to qualify as a wall. Specifically, the walls of a sukkah need to be strong enough that they don’t sway significantly, lose their structure or come apart in an average gust of wind or breeze. But some sway is acceptable.
At various points in our lives — and especially as we begin a new year with all of its challenges — we may feel an overwhelming sense of being in a desert. Far enough along on a journey or through a healing process that we don’t want to turn back, yet not close enough to the finish line that we feel comfortable and assured we’ll make it there.
In the desert, there is only anxiety, but the holiday of Sukkot asks us to embrace that desert experience because without it we wouldn’t get anywhere. We don’t just read about it; we live it, residing in the sukkah for an entire week. And, in doing so, we learn to accept the reality that we are allowed to shake or stumble on our journeys and shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
Sukkot is referred to as the “Z’man Simchateinu,” the time of our joy. But the sukkah represents more than joy. It represents comfort. Rabbi Isaac Luria highlights a sukkah’s basic requirement is that it consist of three walls — two full-length walls and a third tiny wall or extension —
and creatively compares this three-part structure to the three parts of an arm. The shoulder to the elbow, the elbow to the wrist and the wrist to the edge of the fingers. The sukkah is a hug.
On the holiday of Sukkot, we are tasked with building sukkot and reliving the Jewish people’s desert experience, effectively simulating our own. But in a way, we are also tasked with becoming the Sukkah. Temporary but stationary. Fragile but dedicated. Anxious but comforted. We don’t always need to thrive in a storm. We just need to remain standing.
Maximillian Hollander is a rabbinical student living in New York with his wife Ruthie, his daughter Mila, and his dog Momo. He is a student at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Bernard Revel Graduate School of Judaic Studies, and is driven by a love of storytelling, Torah, and an intense desire to share powerful ideas with others, and he has had the privilege of doing so through podcasts, videos, educational resources, and articles.