Making Space in the Sukka: Social Justice and Joy

The period of time in the Hebrew calendar reaching from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur is thought of generally as one unit, in English commonly referred to as the High Holidays, whereas Sukkot, the festival which follows four days after Yom Kippur, is generally thought of as a festive holiday, one of the three biblical Temple festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), entirely distinct from the Days of Awe which happen to precede it. The mystics, however, view the period from Rosh Hashana until the end of Sukkot as one long arc, not as distinct notes on the page but as one continuous unfolding melody reaching its crescendo not at Yom Kippur, as we might guess, but at Hoshana Rabba (the last day of Sukkot prior to the final festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah). As this tradition is unfamiliar to most people, we may have an easier time in resacralizing it in a way that would be meaningful for our contemporary situation.

The first step would be to depart from our usual hierarchy regarding seriousness over joy. Mardi Gras is always first, followed by Lent; one parties first and then when that is done, one can graduate to solemnity. However, the difference to be emphasized here is that the apogee of repentance and life transformation comes not at Yom Kippur, during the 'serious' service, but at Sukkot, the holiday described biblically as 'the time of our rejoicing'. Rather than attempt to summarize the roots of this concept, I will quote R. Pinchas of Koretz, one of the earliest Hassidic thinkers, who was contemporary with the Baal Shem Tov, and whose analogy is quite memorable:

'the time of our rejoicing': Sukkah is the unification of HVYH and ADNY (the male and female names of Gd- numerically Sukka=91=the two names of Gd combined). This unification brings about Da'at (which is the Kabbalistic term for the interface between the two highest male/female names of Gd, and literally means Understanding. For context, Moshe, who brings the Torah from Sinai, represents Da'at), and when there is knowledge, there is joy.

The proof (for the superiority of joy over sadness, sukkot over the high holy days)  is, that if one observes a newborn, who has very little understanding-- already at birth he is capable of crying. It is only much later, when their understanding grows-- that a baby can smile'

Thus, there is a greater spiritual and cognitive message implicit in the joy of the Sukkah experience than in all the crying meant to occur during the High Holidays! Any baby can cry, but it takes deeper understanding to smile.  Perhaps we can understand this to be more than a cute metaphor when we recognize the reasoning behind it:  that the repentance and spiritual growth seen in the High Holidays is a personal, individual one, whereas the joy of Sukkot reflects an interpersonal, social level (the analogy to the newborn is even more apt using modern pediatric developmental terminology-- this facial expression which the baby achieves as a significant milestone of development is referred to as the 'social smile').

There is support for the social nature of Sukkot back at the source; for example, the Torah tells us that the people were meant to gather with the king in the event known as 'hakhel' ('congregate') every seven years specifically on Sukkot. A global perspective is taken by the Talmud, as the seventy sacrificial cows brought on Sukkot during the Temple period were read as being offered for the sake of all the nations of the world. The Sukka itself, as an image, suggesting a remembrance of the plight of the refugee, can certainly be read in this way, as does the Midrash and the medieval thinkers, and as did Rabbi Arthur Waskow in a recent issue of The Nation. Rav Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin, in fact, explains that Sukkot follows the High Holiday period as a penitential exercise, that is, should we have been found guilty of sins requiring exile, we are, as it were, paying the price.

However, when one keeps in mind the emphasis on this being a time of joy, it seems more in tune with joy to read into the Sukka a "positive" value, that is, whereas the refugee imagery stresses the Sukka as symbolic of a "negative" value, a lack, a deficiency, (as per Hanna Arendt's concept of the refugee being morally superior, given the lack of ability to oppress anyone, etc), clearly, to the mystics, a symbol associated with the highest Divine Union must contain within itself also a positive spiritual sense.

Interestingly, even when using the "negative" reading of the Sukka, there is an implied positive undercurrent. Thus, for example, the Bat Ayin, who spins the negative transient quality of  Sukka living into a positive, for creating a permanent dwelling would impede the continuous ascent that we make; he reads the verse in Kohelet 7:23, which is read on the Sabbath of Sukkot-- "I thought I would be wise (echkimah), but she is ever further from me", as suggesting that the ideal is not reaching (or inhabiting) a fixed goal, but rather a more fluid, never-ending attainment of higher and higher divine states.

If not only a negative space, then what is the positive element signified by the Sukka? Geographically, as it were, the Sukka is viewed as encompassing a novel, even privileged spiritual space-- 'I love Sukkot because it is the one commandment which I can be immersed in with my boots on' goes the line attributed to R. Shmelkie of Nicholsburg. This viewing of the material substance as reflecting a divine containment (the Hida points out that the word Sukka itself in Hebrew, contains the two names of Gd not only in its total numerical value, but in the form whereby the outside two letters, S-H, equal the male term, and the inner letters, V-K equal the female name) is that seized upon by the Tiferet Shlomo. In the biblical proof text instructing the people to sit in the Sukka, the verse which reads "In Sukkot teshvu (shall you sit) seven days, in order that your generations shall know'', he adds another possible reading of the word teshvu as being derived not only from lashevet, to sit, but from the word teshuva, return, repentance, and thus the knowledge, the da'at, the level of relationship with Gd that was vivdly experienced by the generation liberated from Egypt, can be recreated by the act of teshuva, repentance, specific to the Sukka.

But what is that element that is specific to the Sukka that brings about this unique and high level of spiritual attainment? For this the Tiferet Shlomo cites another verse with a word similar to Sukka (more specifically, to the Halachically critical aspect of the Sukka-- it is not the walls of the Sukka that are central, but rather the Sechach, the ecologically signifying roof, which must be made of organic substances only). The word sechach used as a verb is found in the verse regarding the Cherubim, the sculpture of two winged angels,  which adorned the ark which held the Tablets upon which were inscribed the original ten commandments. These Cherubim were described as creating a canopy with their wings (sochichim b'kanfeihem) the covering of the ark (the kaporet, which is itself similar to the word kapara, atonement).

In other words, according to the Tiferest Shlomo, Sukkot is the highest possibility of repentance, of world transformation (his exact phrase is 'Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the hakdama, the prologue to Sukkot'), and the specific defining feature of the superiority of Sukkot is found in the continuation of the verse about the Cherubim- who are described as being situated 'with their faces one to another'.

Thus, the possibility for change for the better is highest on Sukkot, because in the Sukka, at the table, one is contained within the same space as another, face to face as it were, and thus the emphasis must be one's responsibility for the Other.

This concept, of Sukkot being primarily about the encounter with others, and not simply the spiritual growth of the Self, is seen in the well known, but not fully understood, tradition of the Ushpizin, the supernal visitors (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc) who are welcomed into the Sukka each night. This tradition, which has become very widely accepted, is of late origin and is first found in the Zohar (III:103b). What is less well known is that this passage in the Zohar is meant to encourage the invitation of the needy to the festival table, to force contemplation of social justice. The Ushpizin come to partake not of the Sukka per se but of the meals placed for the poor, and as the Zohar states: 'woe is he to whom a portion for the poor is not placed!'

This theme of inclusiveness as the central motif of the Sukkot experience is emphasized in the readings of the other unique symbol of this holiday, the four species which are bound together and waved originally as part of the Temple service, now during the synagogue prayers. There are a series of midrashim attempting to explain this odd agricultural service, but the one that concerns us likens the four species to differing types of people within the community: the etrog (citron), which is fragrant and tasty, represents those who are both well versed and act for the common good, the lulav (palm frond), produces edible fruit but has no fragrance, is like those who are well versed but don't act for the common good, the hadassim (myrtle branches) are fragrant but produce no fruit, symbolizing those who do good but haven't studies, whereas the aravah (willow branch), has neither fruit nor fragrance, and stands in for those members of the community who neither know nor volunteer. The midrash continues that together, they will atone one for another. It is not to be assumed, however, that the midrash means that the three more worthy types will atone for the 'arava', for that is not the language used, particularly in a parallel teaching in the Talmud (BT Menahot 27) which stresses that Israel does not achieve appeasement until all four are bound as one unity. The arava can't be depreciated, even in the Midrashic reading, for in other Midrashim, brought in conjunction with this one, the arava is symbolic of any of the following highly positive references: the lips, Joseph, the matriarch Rachel, the court scribes, the name of Gd. Furthermore, on the final day of Sukkot, on the day which according to the Mishna the divine allotment of water for the whole world is decreed, the day on which (as a result of this Mishnaic view) according to the mystics, the absolutely final judgment on each individual is sealed (a view already found as early as Ramban), on this momentous day it is precisely the arava alone that is paraded around the altar, from Temple times to this very day.

So what, then, do the 'aravot', the unschooled, inactive people bring to the communal table? According to the Sefat Emet, they represent the ability to transcend the given situation of an individual, through prayer (hence the midrash comparing the arava to lips). Similarly, according to the Pri Ha'aretz, the arava symbolized pure emunah, pure faith, transcendent of the fragrance and flavor of either intellect or praxis. At any rate, we see that it is the total community, with its strengths and weaknesses, that are bound together in a mutually compensatory relationship. (In fact, according to the Tiferet Shlomo, the obscure custom of hitting the arava on the ground on Hoshana Rabba, a custom so obscure that it is labeled 'of prophetic origin', is meant to demonstrate that any segment of the people that breaks away from concern for all, that travels its own solitary way without regard for the others, as does the arava on its solo circuit around the altar on Hoshana Rabba, is doomed to a bad end.)

So perhaps we are not veering too far from the original message of Sukkot by suggesting that Hoshanna Rabba become synonymous with community-wide efforts to combat poverty. Perhaps that is a day when trans-denominational efforts to deal with local poverty, world-wide hunger, and an end to war, can be institutionalized and inscribed into the calendar, and celebrated as a holiday, perhaps the way it was originally intended. True joy is in the negation of suffering, it is the overcoming of sadness and grief we must celebrate.

(If anyone wants to seriously put this thought into action, I would be glad to be of assistance, contact me via email at

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