What is the Symbolic Meaning of a Biblical Booth/Sukkah?

When Jews read the Torah, they often go straight for technical details, while the text may be making more than one point:

Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to G-d, [to last] seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of G-d for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. 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, your G-d.

So a normal Jew reads this, and tries to fulfill this commandment: “Ok, I need to build a sukkah (a booth)… how big should it be? Can it have a tree overhead? Could I use a dead elephant as one of the walls? etc.” (the elephant question is in the Talmud).

But when we do this, we might miss a different question, entirely: why should we build a sukkah? What does it symbolize?

The answer the text leads us to is not immediately obvious, but it is there nevertheless. When we search for the word as it is found in the text, we get the following results:

• Jacob builds booths for his flock

• Sukkot is the name of a place, possibly where the people first had such structures

• Six times we are told of the festival of Sukkot, Booths, because G-d gave us these when we were in the wilderness.

This is simple enough, so there are some obvious answers here: After leaving danger and on the way to the land of Canaan, Jacob built the first booths for his flock (and a house for himself). And so G-d emulates Jacob when G-d’s own flock (the people) leave danger and are on the way to the land of Canaan. (I write more on this here.) A booth is a home made by someone else, to protect us.

We can also learn that a good shepherd not only protects the flock – he makes them feel protected, and loved. The sukkot in the wilderness were provided by G-d, just as Jacob provided them for his flock. Our sukkot we built today have a contribution from G-d as well, the covering on top must be natural, not artificial. G-d provides the key part of even the Sukkot we use now.

Both Jacob’s animal flock and the human flock belonging to G-d were carefully curated with the aid of angelic guidance. We are supposed to feel special because we are special.

But the text uses the word a few more places! And these give us the rest of the information we need to understand this meaning in full. Here are the specific verses:

Place there the Ark of the Covenant, and screen (sukkah) off the ark with the curtain.

OK, so a Sukkah is meant to block sight. That makes sense – even a flock animal is happier inside walls than standing in the open in full sight of potential predators. We fear being exposed. We like being cocooned.

And another:

Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Sukkot! [in verb form] And Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of your G-d.

Ah! And here it is. A sukkah is meant to shut off our ability to see, so that we emphasize our ability to hear.

We can put this all together now quite nicely. The Festival of Sukkot, Booths, is more than just recalling being in the wilderness. It is a reminder that G-d loves us. That he gifted us with a structure that cocooned and enwrapped us and made us feel safe and protected. It is a way to identify with the Ark of the Covenant, with the people in the wilderness, in a place and time where it is crucial to hear rather than see, to connect with G-d by turning off some of our senses so that we can focus on hearing/understanding – the form of communication that best reaches our souls instead of merely our bodies.

When we do that, when we focus on hearing, it forces us to internalize who we are, and who we are in relation to G-d. Cocooned in the sukkah that G-d provides for us, we are better able to be close to Him, to hear and grow from the “still, small voice.”

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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