The sukkah is a makeshift hut in which the Jew dwells during the seven-day festival of Sukkot. In commanding us to leave the stability and safety of our homes for this temporary and vulnerable structure, the Torah explains that this is to remind us of how G‑d sheltered us (with the miraculous “clouds of glory”) in our forty-year journey through the desert from Egypt to the Holy Land.
Yet the sukkah also has a more ancient origin, dating back four hundred years before the Exodus, to Abraham, the first Jew. In the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, we read of Abraham’s legendary hospitality for the desert wayfarers passing by his home. Still ailing from his circumcision three days earlier, Abraham stationed himself at the doorway of his tent to await any possible guests; when he saw three travelers approaching, “He ran toward them . . . and bowed to the ground. And he said [to the chief one]: ‘My lord! If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. I will fetch you some bread and you shall sate your hearts; only then shall you pass on . . .”
Says the Midrash: In the merit of Abraham’s inviting his guests to “recline yourselves under the tree,” G‑d sheltered his descendants in the desert, and later granted them the mitzvah of sukkah.
Indeed, our own sukkahs in many ways resemble the resting place that Abraham offered his guests in the shade of his tree. The meaning of the word “sukkah” is a structure whose function is to provide shade; thus, the most important part of the sukkah is the sechach, the roof covering, which must be dense enough so that “the shade [in the sukkah] is greater than the sunlight.” And the sechach must consist of materials which, like Abraham’s tree, “grow from the earth”—branches, reeds or other unfinished vegetable matter.
Yet there is also a crucial difference between our sukkah and its Abrahamic predecessor. The law is that the materials of the sechach must be detached from their source of growth in the earth. Thus, a sukkah that is covered by a trellis of vines that are still connected to their roots, or that is built under a tree so that it is shaded by the tree’s still-connected branches, is invalid for use in the observance of the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.
The sukkah is unique among the mitzvot of the Torah in that it embraces the totality of the person: the Torah stipulates that a person should conduct all his activities—eating, resting, studying, socializing—inside the sukkah for seven days. (With other mitzvot, only certain parts or faculties of the person are involved in the fulfillment of the divine will. For example: Torah study involves the brain; prayer, the heart and the faculty of speech; tefillin, the arm and head; matzah, the digestive system; etc.) Thus, the mitzvah of sukkah is often cited as representative of all the mitzvot.
If dwelling in the sukkah is the generic mitzvah, understanding both the similarity and the difference between our sukkah and the “sukkah” of Abraham will illuminate the nature of our relationship with the Patriarchs, and explain how our deeds derive, yet also differ, from their achievements.
Our sages tell us that our forefathers studied the Torah and fulfilled its commandments many generations before it was “officially” given to us at Mount Sinai. Yet it is the revelation at Sinai, rather than the legacy of the Patriarchs, that is the essence of our covenant with G‑d and our commitment to observe the mitzvot. In the words of Maimonides:
“Everything that we avoid doing or that we do today, we do only because of G‑d’s command to Moses at Sinai, not because of any communication from G‑d to earlier prophets. For example, we refrain from eating [the flesh of] a limb taken from a live animal, not because G‑d forbade this to Noah, but because Moses forbade it by commanding us, at Sinai, that this prohibition should be observed . . . We do not circumcise ourselves because our father Abraham circumcised himself and the members of his household, only because G‑d commanded us through Moses that we should circumcise ourselves as did Abraham . . .”
The Midrash explains the difference between the pre-Sinaitic mitzvot and the mitzvot we observe after Sinai with the following metaphor:
Once there was a king who decreed: “The people of Rome are forbidden to journey to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to journey to Rome.” Likewise, when G‑d created the world He decreed: “The heavens are G‑d’s, and the earth is given to man.” But when He wished to give the Torah to Israel, He rescinded His original decree and declared: “The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms. And I, Myself, will begin.” As it is written, “And G‑d descended on Mount Sinai,” and then it says, “And to Moses He said: Go up to G‑d.”
The human being is the crown and apex of G‑d’s creation, a creature whose intelligence and spirituality distinguish him as a class above the other creatures with which he shares G‑d’s world. Yet man, too, is part of the “lower realms”; man, too, is finite and mortal, and even his highest achievements cannot transcend his finiteness and mortality. At least, that was the state of affairs for as long as the decree separating heaven and earth was in force.
But at Sinai G‑d rescinded this decree, descending to an earthly mountain and inviting man to “go up to G‑d.” Man was empowered to live a G‑dly life, to think G‑dly thoughts, speak G‑dly words and do G‑dly deeds. The 613 mitzvot of the Torah were established by G‑d as vehicles of connection to Him, as bridges between heaven and earth.
The mitzvot as performed prior to Sinai were lofty deeds, spiritual deeds, deeds representing the heights of human achievement. Yet they were human deeds. Deeds striving upwards toward heaven, yet never truly transcending their earthly base. It was only after Sinai that a human act could be freed of its earthbound roots to soar to the “higher realms” and assume an infinite and eternal significance.
Climbing the Mountain
Yet the revelation at Sinai did not take place in a vacuum. It was preceded by twenty-six generations of human endeavor, twenty-six generations in which man refined and perfected his finite self in preparation for the encounter with G‑d at Sinai.
Thus, when G‑d descended to earth to breach the frontier that separated the supernal from the terrestrial, He did not come down to the Israelite camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, only to the mountain’s summit. One might ask: if G‑d had come all the way from the infinite beyond to visit our finite earth, could He not have descended another few thousand feet, instead of troubling the eighty-year-old Moses to climb to the top of the mountain? But this expresses the terms on which G‑d made Himself accessible to us at Sinai. First, said G‑d, I want you to attain the greatest heights of which you are capable; first, I want you to develop your own potential to its utmost. Then, I will meet you at the summit of human achievement, and free you from its limitations.
Therein lies the significance of Abraham’s sukkah-tree and its relationship to our post-Sinai sechach-covered sukkah. Before Sinai, a mitzvah could, at most, be a tree: its branches reaching heavenward—perhaps even to great heights—yet rooted in and nourished by the earth. Man could develop and refine himself, yet could not transcend his terrestrial foundations. But after Sinai, our sukkot can, and must, be made with branches cut free from their earthly roots. After Sinai, a mitzvah must entail a departure from the merely human and rise to a self-transcending bond with G‑d.
At the same time, it was Abraham’s sukkah that was the cause of our receiving the gift of sukkah from G‑d—just as the branches that cover our sukkot must first sprout from the earth and grow and develop in their earthbound state. First we must develop our own human faculties—our limited understanding, our subjective feelings, our mortal achievements—before these can be “cut loose” from their earthly moorings to serve as true vehicles of connection with G‑d.
Based on an entry in the Rebbe’s journal, Sukkot 5702 (1941), and his talks on various other occasions.