Sukkot: From Eisav to Shmitta

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 
"And you shall dwell in sukkot for seven days, all citizens of Israel shall dwell in a sukkah so that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your G-d" (Vayikra 23:42-43). 
 
The story of Sukkot does not begin with the exodus from Egypt. It began over 200 years earlier in the encounter between Yaakov and Eisav. Having fled for his life years earlier, Yaakov must prepare to face his brother - fearful that he may not survive the encounter. The meeting goes better than expected: "and Eisav ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept" (Breisheeet 33:4). Yet while a battle is averted, there is no peace, no forgiveness and hence no reconciliation. Rather the brothers separate. "Eisav returned that day on his way unto Seir. And Jacob journeyed to Sukkot, and built himself a house, and made sukkot for his cattle. Therefore the name of the place is called Sukkot" (Breisheet 33:16-17).
 
It is not simple to dwell in a sukkah. It is after all a place unfit for human habitation. A human being lives in house - it is animals who dwell in sukkot.  A temporary, flimsy dwelling where one is exposed to the elements is no place for humans. Sitting in the sukkah we are reminded of the fragility of life, how the sukkat shlomecha, the sukkah of peace has yet to be attained. While Eisav dwells safe and secure in the mountains of Seir, Yaakov dwells in sukkot. 
 
Yet that same sukkah is the secret to the indestructibility and the great strength of the Jewish people. Remarkably, the very next verse in the Torah states that "Yaakov came to the city of Shechem that is in the land of Canaan, shalem, complete and in peace". From the precarious sukkah we emerge complete. The sukkah teaches that ultimately our homes offer little protection, that we are able to seek complete refuge only through our relationship with G-d. "One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life" (Tehilim 27:4). It is dwelling in the house of the Lord, the only home that is truly permanent, that offers protection from the precarious nature of life. Not that we won't have trials and tribulations - Yaakov was crippled by his encounter with Eisav - but that we can overcome, move on and emerge even stronger. Yaakov can now come to the land of Israel complete. And 4,000 years later, after many encounters with those much more cruel than Eisav we can do the same. 
 
It is the sukkah that serves as the vehicle for redemption. "And the Jewish people travelled from Ramseas to Sukkot about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children" (Shemot 12:37). After 430 years in Egypt (Shemot 12:40) redemption and freedom arrive - at Sukkot.  And when they arrived at Sukkot "they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt" (Shemot 12:39). It was at (and most likely in) Sukkot that we ate matza[1] - the food fit for a slave which is transformed into the food of redemption. The flimsy sukkah has become more powerful than the pyramids. 
 
Our little sukkah is not yet complete. The sukkah that began with our encounter with Eisav, with fear and uncertainty reaches it Biblical conclusion with the mitzva of Hakhel as the entire Jewish people join together for a public reading of the Torah. "At the end of every seven years, at the conclusion of the year of release (shmitta), in the feast of tabernacles... assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law" (Devarim 31:12).  
 
Both shmitta and sukkot demand that man recognize that no matter how hard we may work, without the blessings of G-d we would have nothing. We must let the land lie fallow once in seven years and must leave our home for seven days every year lest we are led to believe that "my strength and has brought me this wealth" (Devarim 8:17)
 
During the shmitta year class distinctions fade away as the poor have equal access to the fields of the wealthy. If the mitzva of hakhelmust take place on sukkot then sukkot must be the holiday that celebrates the joining together of the Jewish people. Midrashic literature is full of the symbolism of the etorg, lulav, hadas and arava representing all Jews, from the most learned and pious to the ignorant and flagrant violaters of Jewish law. One can have the most beautiful etrog in the world but if the arava - that sinning jew - is missing the etrog is useless (beyond making some jam). 
 
When the Jewish people in its many shapes and tastes join together our sukkah transforms from a flimsy hut to one in which G-d's protective clouds, the annanei hakavod, envelop us[2]. At that point our sukkah will enable us not only to defeat those who would do us harm but inspire them to join us in the sukkah of peace[3] . Chag Sameach!
 
[1] This seems to be the impetus behind the question as to why Sukkot is not celebrated at Pesach time (see the Tur Orach Chaim #625.
  
[2] Perhaps this explains the debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer as to whether our sukkot are in commemoration of actual huts the Jewish people lived in as they sojourned in the desert or commemorate the clouds of glory that protected and led us in the desert. the actua sukkah reflects the Jewish people before they are united whereas the clouds of glory represent the sukkah of the future when we will join together as one. 

[3] Tellingly the haftarot of Sukkot discuss the messianic era.