The defining element of the sukkah is the once-growing but now detached material that must comprise the structure’s roof.
Some use untreated bamboo canes; others, mats woven for the purpose from slivers of the same material; others still, branches or leaves or thin, unfinished wooden slats. Whatever its particular identity, the s’chach takes its name from the Hebrew word meaning to “cover” or “hover”; the word sukkah itself refers to the same.
But there is another Hebrew word associated with the word sukkah – “socheh” – and its meaning is “to see” or “to perceive.” That association would seem to imply that a sukkah somehow provides some perspective. Which, in fact, it does.
That is surely true on a mystical plane, but there is prosaic vision to be gained no less. It doesn’t take inordinate sensitivity to see things a bit differently while spending a week in a small rudimentary hut, within sight of, yet apart from, one’s more comfortable, more spacious home.
One realizes quickly, for example, how dependent one is on “the elements” – which, in Judaism’s teaching, means on G-d’s mercy. The house is nearby, and if it rains hard enough one can – indeed should – return to surer shelter. But the lesson remains, because homes aren’t impervious to disruptions either, as we have witnessed all too often of late. Nature is a humbling force, or should be; that is certainly part of the perspective granted the sukkah-dweller.
But there is more. What the sukkah allows those within it to perceive, if they try, is that our homes and possessions are not what really matter. That ultimately, it is not, as the crass bumper sticker has it, “the one who dies with the most toys” who “wins.” When we sit in our primitive week-house, we come to know that the accumulation of stuff we consider important is not essential. We can exist without it. It does not define us. We will not take it with us.
It may seem an odd thing to say, but that thought is a joyous one.
Sukkos has simcha, joy, as its theme. In our prayers on the days of the holiday we reference not “freedom” as on Pesach, nor “the giving of our Torah” as on Shavuos, but, simply, simchaseinu, “our happiness.” One might assume at first thought that depriving oneself of the comforts of home is anything but a road to joy. But one would be wrong.
For true happiness begins with the realization of what doesn’t really make us happy. Possessions may provide a rush of sorts when first acquired, but that soon enough wears off, like any drug. The soul is not satiated, which is why – again, like a drug – possessions beget the desire, even the need, for yet more of the same. In the words of Chazal, “he who has a hundred wants two hundred.” And, in another place but the same vein, “No man dies with half his desires in hand.”
Need we look further than the possession-endowed of whom we may have heard – the entertainers, sports figures, best-selling authors, the old-moneyed and lottery-winners alike? They may zip around in Lamborghinis but their happiness quotient is no greater than that of those who take the bus. Their grand estates are no more of a home (and all too often considerably less of one) than the simplest, cozy cottage.
In the end, dependency on having as the means to fulfillment dashes all hope of truly attaining the goal.
Because true joy comes from things more rarified than what we can buy. It comes from our relationships not with things, but with other people – parents, spouses, children, friends, neighbors – and our relationships with our community, and with the Creator.
And so, a deeper perspective afforded us by the sukkah may lie in the realization that, ultimately, what we really have is not what we own, but what we are – to other people and to G-d.
And so, while countless Jewish eyes will soon gaze up at bamboo slats, leaves and branches, they will in fact be seeing far beyond.
© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran