During the festival of Sukkot, we live in huts (“sukkot” means “booths”). Why? Because G-d commanded us to do so: You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths. –Lev. 23:42. This is to remember, the Torah tells us, that we lived in booths in the wilderness between leaving Egypt and entering Canaan.
But where did G-d get the idea?
The answer surprised me.
The first time the word “Sukkot” is used is found way back in Genesis, when the Torah tells us, “Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built for himself a house and made booths for his flock; therefore the place is named Succoth.” (Gen. 33:17)
The verse is odd, because the place is named because of what Jacob does there – the creative act of making booths leads to the name of the place, which tells us that there is importance in the booths themselves.
More than this: Jacob’s waystation is built after he separates from Esau – and in the very next verse it says that Jacob became “shalem”, which means “complete” or “whole.”
Or, to put it another way: Jacob emerged unscathed from potentially being killed by Esau, and on his way to return to the land of Canaan, he built himself a home, and make booths for his flock. It was a stopover in his journeys. Then Jacob was ready to come into the land.
In the wilderness, G-d does the very same thing that Jacob had done! In the wilderness, G-d protected his flock (our people) in our booths, and led us, much like a shepherd leads his flock (with guidance as well as protection). And in the wilderness He commanded us to build Him a home – the tabernacle.
And when we left the wilderness we, too, were whole and ready to enter the land to carry on with the next chapter of our national lives.
Every year observant Jews live in a Sukkah to relive the experience of being in the wilderness, and assuredly reminded of belonging to G-d’s flock.