After the loftiness of the High Holidays we return to the earthliness of Sukkot. The origins of Sukkot are rooted in both land and history. In ancient times the Jewish people were farmers. In order to facilitate the gathering of the fall harvest they built huts in their fields where they lived for the week long harvest. According to the Torah the historical significance of this holiday is that the Israelites lived in these booths during their wandering in the wilderness of Sinai.
Given that we are not farmers, we of course emphasize the historical meaning of this holiday. Just as Passover celebrates going free from Egypt and Shavuot the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Sukkot represents the wandering from slavery to sovereignty. Wandering is the core meaning of this holiday. Searching for our home is symbolized in this temporary structure.
In order to capture this quality the tradition dictated exacting requirements for the roof. You must for example be able to see the stars through its lattice work. If the roof keeps out all wind and rain then it is no longer a temporary structure but permanent. In essence, if it is too good of a roof then it is no longer a sukkah but a house.
Years ago I built my sukkah with a student who was homeless. He was studying with me in the 92nd Street Y’s introduction to Judaism class. I invited the group to come to my apartment to help build the sukkah. He was the only person who accepted the invitation. At the time we lived in an apartment in Great Neck. Rather than calling me so that I could pick him up at Flushing where the 7 train reached its limit, he walked to my apartment from the subway station. When I told him that I would give him money to take the LIRR for his return to the city, he refused and insisted on walking back to the shelter where he stayed.
Together on my apartment’s balcony we constructed my sukkah. As we lifted the boards and hammered together the sukkah, I remember thinking to myself: “I am constructing this sukkah to remind me how fortunate I am. For me this sukkah is temporary. Its roof is flimsy. Its walls are permeable. It is less than my house. It is a reminder that life should not revolve around material possessions. For my student however it is far more than his house. It is not less than he owns, but more.”
It was in that moment that I realized the true spiritual meaning of this Sukkot holiday. We might live in beautiful and comfortable homes filled with many wonderful things, but meaning can be found in a few boards and a flimsy roof. We can always fill our lives with more spirit. All are homeless. All are wandering.
I will think of this moment and its lessons as I look up at the large harvest moon through the lattice of my sukkah’s roof. All are forever searching for home.