The commandment to sit in the sukkah is rather unusual. We fulfill the mitzvah of “You shall live in the sukkah for seven days” (Vayikra 23:42) by simply eating meals and sleeping in the sukkah. Since when is sleeping a mitzvah? Sleeping is a lack of consciousness; a necessary prerequisite to serving God, certainly, but a mitzvah? And in fact, the Gemara in Sukkah (28b) says that if a person chooses to eat a snack in the sukkah, or simply to relax there, that is also a mitzvah. It’s incredible to think that reading a newspaper in one’s home is just reading a newspaper, but if we do so in the sukkah during the holiday, it is a mitzvah. How do we understand this?
The Torah explains that we must sit in the sukkah “so that your generations will know that I provided sukkot to Bnei Yisrael when I took them out of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:43). The Gemara in Sukkah (11b) records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer, who maintains that the sukkah represents the Clouds of Glory with which Hashem protected us in the desert, and Rabbi Akiva, who says they were actual huts that Hashem provided for us there. What is the core of this debate? In Rabbi Eliezer’s view, the sukkah represents all of the supernatural ways in which Hashem took care of us in the desert—the manna falling from heaven, the water flowing from the rock, our clothing never wearing out. Rabbi Akiva holds that we are remembering the actual huts Hashem provided, representing what we have in our lives that seem to come by natural means and are therefore often taken for granted, such as physical shelter, rainfall and good health.
Perhaps this is precisely the reason that the most mundane and seemingly non-spiritual activities become a mitzvah in the sukkah. The message of the sukkah is that our very lives are meant to be lived with the sense that God is above us, and with a sense of gratitude to Him for all of the opportunities and blessings in our lives, whether obvious or hidden. By turning every single act into a mitzvah, we live lives that are sanctified on that high level for an entire week. We thereby internalize the message that we owe thanks to Hashem for every small thing, even eating and sleeping, and that every action in our lives can and should be done l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. This week prepares us for the rest of the year—for the rainy season in Israel that we pray will follow, for the school year that has begun, for all the endeavors we begin in the new year—and reminds us that even when we are at work, at school, and at home, even when eating and sleeping, we are serving Hashem and under His protection and care.
Rabbanit Sally Mayer serves as rosh midrasha at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. She is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).