Sukkot: Permanence and Transience
At times the laws of the Festival of Sukkot appear contradictory. On the one hand the sukkah is meant to be a temporary dwelling. As the laws of sukkah dictate, a sukkah may not be too tall and the roof may not be fully protective- the wood or branches used to cover the sukkah can't be one whole board and may not be too close together. And because the sukkah is not meant to be a permanent dwelling place it is exempt from the obligation of a mezuzah. These laws are the basis of the many drashot and divrei Torah that focus on the symbolism of sukkot as a time that we go out of our houses- of the strength and sacrifice of the People of Israel for leaving the safety of their homes for seven days to live like nomads, or for going out of their comfortable, insulated houses right at the time when people are going inside for protection from the oncoming cold.
On the other hand halachah demands that for the seven (or eight) days of Sukkot we treat our sukkah like a permanent dwelling, "teshvu k'ein taduru," "you should dwell (temporarily) as you live (permanently)." A person is supposed to make this temporary booth into their main dwelling. This means taking your nicest linens, plates, and cutlery into the sukkah, organizing it so that all the family members can use it comfortably, and in general turning the sukkah into your home for the duration of the holiday.
"All seven days one should make his sukkah his permanent dwelling and his home his temporary dwelling. How? If he has beautiful vessels, he brings them into the sukkah, beautiful linens- he brings them into the sukkah. He eats and drinks and travels in the sukkah." (T.B. Sukkah 28b)
These laws are the basis of the halachah that exempts people who guard gardens and orchards from the mitzvah of sukkah. Since these people can't bring their nicest vessels and linens along with them they can't fulfill the mitzvah properly by making their sukkah into their permanent home; and since they can't fulfill the mitzvah in this way they are exempt from it entirely. (T.B. Sukkah 26a, Rashi "k'ein taduru")
This is also the logic behind the argument that women should also be obligated in the mitzvah of sukkah- since women and men dwell in the house together, they should also both dwell in the sukkah together. It is the partnership between the two spouses and their cohabitation that turns a house into a home. (T.B. Kiddushin 34a) So can a sukkah really be a home if the woman of the house is not a part of it? This kind of logic is also the basis of a discussion concerning people who work in a job that takes them away from their home for long stretches of time- like priests who serve in the Temple during the festival. These people would not normally be with their wives at this time, so are they still obligated to dwell in the sukkah with their wives? (T.B. Erchin 3b)
So the sukkah has some aspects of permanence and other aspects that are temporal. At a first glance these seem contradictory. Yet this contradiction seems simple enough to reconcile- while the contents of the sukkah and our experience dwelling within it should have a certain air of permanence, the outer frame of the sukkah and the physical structure are supposed to be temporary. But this answer leaves us with more questions- what is the relationship between the temporal and the permanent in our world? How much are these contradictory ideas? Can they coexist?
And for the mitzvah of sukkah you need a temporary dwelling (T.B. Sukkah 2a) and the author of the Akeida wrote that the simple explanation is to hint to us that it is enough for a person in this world to have his needs met in the way of a temporary dwelling- (that he have enough for) his head, the majority of his body, and his table- for this world is a temporary dwelling; and all the belongings of this world- houses and fields and vineyards- do not give a person a sturdy foundation to rely upon, and they will all be lost to him. (Igra Dkala, Parshat Masei)
According to the opinion brought here, the temporal sukkah can be seen as a metaphor for our world. When all is said and done this world is only a temporary apparition, our situation is fleeting. Wealth or poverty, happiness or sadness- these are just the circumstances within which we dwell. We have a task, a challenge, and a destiny; we are meant to ease our transition from this temporary world into the eternal World to Come.
Yet this world also has some permanence; the place we set aside for God in this world is significant, and it is eternal. We have an opportunity to amass permanent wealth in this world through actions that will last- doing good deeds and studying Torah; the same is true when we sit in the tzel hashechinah, the shade of the Divine Presence in the sukkah, and we attest to God's presence in this world. These actions nourish the soul and give it life in this world that will continue into the next world. There is an element of eternity in every moment of sanctity, however fleeting it may be.
The sukkah and laws that define it make it clear that transience and permanence are not two contradictory ideas, but rather they are complementary. When we free ourselves from the illusion of permanence we allow our souls the freedom to grow and flourish.
In Chassidic sources the sukkah is compared the yichud room of a bride and groom. On sukkot God secludes Himself with the People of Israel in the sukkah. And so the laws of the sukkah go beyond, they teach us more than the laws of the festival and the simcha, the joy, that characterizes it. These laws also teach us about the idea of marriage. When a bride and groom leave the familiar permanence of their parents' homes the routine they have been accustomed to their whole lives is disrupted. Often this transition involves some sort of decline in the level of material comforts and sense of security the couple was previously used to. They have to put in a lot more effort and take on newfound responsibilities, and these new circumstances can leave them feeling untethered. At the same time these feelings are tempered by a sense of shared destiny, and mutual love and affection. The foundations that are planted in these early stages will eventually ripen and create fertile ground for years of happiness and joy, understanding and attentiveness, peace and friendship. This is as true for the relationship between a bride and groom as it is for the relationship between God and the People of Israel.
Note: All of Rabbanit Tikochinsky’s parsha commentaries are stored on the LSS web site. To access them, please visit www.lss.org/beitmorasha. You are also welcome to forward the link to people who are outside the LSS community and who may otherwise not have access to her columns.