While our Jewish tradition reminds us that we should begin the job of building our sukkah when Yom Kippur ends, Sukkot is the holiday when we say “stop.” Sukkot is the “happiness” holiday, which is really the “appreciation” holiday. It is the essence of everything we are striving for: meaning, fulfillment and purpose.
On Sukkot we leave the material comfort of our home. We eat meals in a little temporary hut with branches for a roof. We are subject to the wind, rain, bugs and cold. Some people literally move into the sukkah, sleeping and eating outside.
Every holiday has a special spiritual energy that best encapsulates the day — Passover is “the time of freedom” and Shavuot is “the time of the giving of the Torah.” On Sukkot we are commanded to be joyous.
In Hebrew, it is called hachag, the festival. We must rejoice even if our heart does not feel joyous. The Torah, when describing this holiday, enjoins us particularly: “And you should be happy before Adonai your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).
We must rejoice without all the material goodies that most of us find so vital to our lives. One can be joyous without all the material comforts we cherish.
Along this line, there is a survey of people who won the lottery. After the first shock and excitement of winning had worn off, after they had spent some of the money, the survey asked whether they had found happiness in their winnings. The results were not surprising. Those who were happy with their lives before they won remained happy afterward. And those who were unhappy with their lives before they won remained unhappy afterward.
Perhaps these people had a few more luxuries. But the luxuries ultimately did not bring them happiness.
In Jewish tradition, when a person dies, he or she is buried in a shroud, a simple white garment with no pockets. This is symbolic that we cannot take our material things with us. We are only passing through. Ultimately, joy must come not in what we acquire in life but what we accomplish in life. Sukkot teaches that we can be joyous in a fragile hut.
We are reminded of another theme of Sukkot every Friday night when we recite: “Baruch atah Adonai ha-poras sukkat shalom aleinu v’al kol amo Yisrael v’al Yerushalayim — Blessed are You Adonai who spreads the sukkah of peace upon us, upon all of the people of Israel and upon Jerusalem.”
The question must be asked: What is the connection between sukkah and peace? Why does it say that God should spread the sukkah of peace? Why not spread over us the matzah of peace, or the tallit of peace? What connects the sukkah and peace?
Several answers are given to this question, perhaps none more relevant than that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Rabbi Kook explains the connection between the sukkah and peace in the following way. He says you can fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah with an imperfect sukkah. You are supposed to have four walls, but if for some reason you only have two walls and a piece of a third, it is still kosher. You are supposed to have a beautifully decorated sukkah, but if it has no decorations at all, it is still kosher.
A sukkah that is imperfect is still a kosher sukkah. With most every other mitzvah, we strive for perfection. At the Shabbat table we don’t say a motzi over a broken loaf. An etrog that is missing a piece is not a kosher one.
It is only in the sukkah that God tolerates imperfection.
And this is why, says Rav Kook, we connect the sukkah with peace — because peace can never exist if we insist on perfection.
In the grave there is perfect peace. But in this world, there is a big shortage of perfect people. Therefore, we can only get along if we are willing to sit in the same sukkah, despite its imperfections — and despite our imperfections.
May your Sukkot be one of joy and of striving toward peace.
Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. This column previously appeared in j. on Sept. 27, 2007.