Going Above and Beyond Allyship for Sukkot

וְחַ֤ג הַקָּצִיר֙ בִּכּוּרֵ֣י מַעֲשֶׂ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּזְרַ֖ע בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וְחַ֤ג הָֽאָסִף֙ בְּצֵ֣את הַשָּׁנָ֔ה בְּאָסְפְּךָ֥ אֶֽת־מַעֲשֶׂ֖יךָ מִן־הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃

And the Festival of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors that you sow in the field; and the Festival of the Bringing-in at the close of the year, when you gather in your work from the field.

–Exodus 23:16

The Divine model of allyship is unrecognizably different from our human version because as soon as the Divine engages with a struggle – the struggle as we know it, ends. On Sukkot, the very physical dimensions of the tabernacle remind us of our transient existence while asking us to reflect on the spiritual aspects of the Clouds of Glory. We live in a limited, physical world and we are invited to transcend it. Paradoxically, the aspiration to reach the spiritual world is achieved by fixing the physical one.

The rituals around Sukkot are intended to take us “out of our permanent structures – צֵא מִדִּירַת קֶבַע,” in order to view them from the perspective of the temporary, and then to reconfigure them accordingly [1]. Just as we build a Sukkah to accommodate us for the 7 days of the festival, there are social structures that are no longer serving people well and we should ensure that they don’t exist beyond their helpfulness.

The technical laws for constructing a sukkah are different from the parameters of other commandments in that by reminding us of our human limitations in physical spaces, we are encouraged to extend them into the spiritual domain. A sukkah, the temporary dwelling that was famously experienced as part of the Exodus from Egypt, and is now an integral part of the holiday of Sukkot, must provide more shade than sun through the s’chach – roof covering, while still leaving the stars visible at night. One interpretation for why the sukkah can’t have a solid ceiling is because Sukkot is a festival where we increase our capacity to protect and care for others. Just as we remove “glass ceilings” to achievement in our temporal world, the partial covering removes a ceiling to achievement in the spiritual realm. Seeing the stars directs us to the heavens to reflect on the Divine model of total, supernatural provisions, while the unprocessed s’chach itself acknowledges the current incomplete status of our own efforts to provide for one another.

The Torah calls the holiday of Sukkot “חַ֤ג הָֽאָסִף֙Chag HaAsif – the Festival of the Gathering/Bringing in.” On a simple level, the verse is referring to the harvest, when one brings produce from the field into storage [2]. However, when “Chag HaAsif” is used in Exodus 34:22, it is in the context of Shemitah – the sabbatical year, when there is no harvest to bring in [3]. On a deeper level, the “bringing in” refers to people, as the Talmud [4] says on the verse [5] “כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת – all of Israel shall live in sukkot – This teaches that all of the Jewish people are fitting to reside in one sukkah” [6].

In Hebrew, the words “end – סוף” and “continue – יסף” share the same root “סףsof.” This contronym leaves various verses [7] open to be read with opposite meanings. For example “וְלֹֽא־יָסַ֥ף ע֖וֹד לְדַעְתָּֽהּ” could either be read “[Judah] did not continue to know her” [8] or “he did not cease to know her” [9] This ambiguity parallels the talmudic [10] dispute concerning the reason why we are commanded to celebrate Sukkot, חַ֤ג הָֽאָסִף֙, today:

דְּתַנְיָא: ״כִּי בַסּוּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל״, עַנְנֵי כָבוֹד הָיוּ, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר. רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר: סוּכּוֹת מַמָּשׁ עָשׂוּ לָהֶם – As it is taught: “I made the children of Israel to reside in sukkot”; these were Clouds of Glory [that surrounded the Israelites and protected them from every discomfort], this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They established for themselves actual sukkot

Tradition teaches that both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akivah agree with the other’s reasoning as valid, but are coming to emphasize a different aspect of the commandment [11]. The Chayai Adom [12] observes that the word “sukkah” is spelled differently [13], once complete with the letter “ו-vuv” and once without it, to acknowledge both types of sukkot; the Clouds of Glory and the literal booths. 

So, while it is true that Divine intervention differs from ours, the former still inspires the latter, just as the Clouds of Glory can guide the dwellers in booths. The fullness of one model, and the deficiency of the other, comes from contrasting attitudes of allyship from God and people. We often show up, responding to a very particular need of a moment – “Do you need a place to sleep? Something to eat? – Here, this should get you through the day.” In the desert, God took such good care of us that the only thing we missed was the feeling of missing something [14]. We too can aspire to provide the allyship that can not just alleviate difficulty, but can remove the conditions for that hardship.

While the Clouds of Glory represent the ultimate expression of God’s loving attention to us, where our need for anything came to an end and everything was provided for in the most completely perfect way, for us, it’s an ongoing process that actually began a couple hundred years before the Exodus. Sukkot are first mentioned, in the Torah, in the context of providing shelter for animals.

 וְיַעֲקֹב֙ נָסַ֣ע סֻכֹּ֔תָה וַיִּ֥בֶן ל֖וֹ בָּ֑יִת וּלְמִקְנֵ֙הוּ֙ עָשָׂ֣ה סֻכֹּ֔ת עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרָ֥א שֵׁם־הַמָּק֖וֹם סֻכּֽוֹת” – But Jacob journeyed on to Succoth, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle; that is why the place was called Succoth.” 

Or HaChaim [15] explains that these protective structures were the first ones ever created to make animals more comfortable. From there, we moved on to improving the quality of life for people. 

The sukkah, from our perspective, is the gratitude practice that asks us to focus on increasing the walls of inclusivity, ensuring that the thatched ceiling of today becomes the underwhelming floor of tomorrow. And on, from generation to generation, making sure that we improve the lives of more and more people, in deeper and deeper ways.

Every aspect of the festival, from the scriptural taking of the etrog – פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ (a citron having both a pleasant smell and taste representing the resources of good deeds and Torah study) being brought with the other species [16], to the custom of inviting the ushpizin (spiritual guests, one each night from the “seven shepherds”) [17] encourages us to broaden our sense of connection with others; past, present, and future.

This arc of  [18] הָדָר֙ – returning to resources (209), to חבר – ally (210) through the increased capacity of צל סוכה – the shade of the sukkah (211), creates an aspiration to achieve the Divine ideal ענני כבוד – Clouds of Glory (212). In order to build better attachments to one another we have to reframe our earthly structures and continue looking to the stars.

[1] Sukkah 2a.
[2] See Rashi on Exodus 23:16.
[3] See Rashi on Exodus 34:21-22.
[4] Sukka 26b.
[5] Leviticus 23:43
[6] “This is one of the reasons why we read Kohelet, a language of the Kahal, congregation. The word קוהלת has the same numerical value as ישראל.
[7] Genesis 38:26.
[8] Sifre Bamidbar 88.
[9] Sotah 10b.
[10] Sukkah 11b.
[11] See Netziv in Emek Davar.
[12] 146:1.
[13] In Leviticus 23:42-43.
[14] Numbers 11:4 הִתְאַוּ֖וּ תַּאֲוָ֑ה – they desired desire.
[15] Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar (1696-1743).
[16] Leviticus 23:40.
[17] Micha 5:4.
[18] Also the word used for Esrog.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. He is a deeply traditional and radically progressive advocate for trans rights and a vocal ally for LGBTQ inclusivity.
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