June 22, 2024
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Sukkot and the In-Between

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer famously debate the symbolism of our sukkot, as recorded in a Baraita on Sukkot 11b:

“I made the children of Israel to reside in sukkot” (Vayikra 2:43);

these booths were Clouds of Glory, this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer.

Rabbi Akiva says: They established for themselves actual sukkot.

Rabbi Eliezer identifies the sukkot in which we dwelt in the desert, the sukkot that our own holiday booths commemorate, with the clouds that God provided to protect the people. Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, identifies the sukkot of the desert with the actual booths that the people build for themselves.

Do our sukkot symbolize God’s protection, or our own handiwork? Perhaps the sukkah is intended not to symbolize one or the other, but a balance between both.

Mishnah Sukkah 1:4 (on Sukkah 11b) offers the following guidelines for what constitutes kosher s’chach: It must grow from the earth (but no longer be attached), and it must not be susceptible to impurity (mekabel tum’ah). Susceptibility to impurity is the hallmark of a “keli,” a human-made utensil. Rabbi Dov Berkovits points out that the rules for s’chach require an earthly material (grown from the ground), that has been somewhat separated from its natural state (disconnected), but not entirely worked over by human hands into a utensil susceptible to impurity. These rules seem to balance on a thin edge between Rabbi Eliezer (sukkah represents God’s protection) and Rabbi Akiva (sukkah represents human-made structures). The sukkah, it seems, is neither one nor the other, but an in-between space where human activity meets God’s presence.

The Gemara in Sukkah (11b) searches for a source for the rule that s’chach must be a product of the land, but not susceptible to impurity. Surprisingly, the first suggestion, from Resh Lakish, comes not from any verse about the holiday of Sukkot or about Benei Yisrael’s sojourns in the desert, but rather from the very beginning of time (and of the Torah), Bereishit 2:6: “But there went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.” The mist, Resh Lakish says, was a product of the land (“went up from the earth”) and is not susceptible to impurity, so the s’chach should be too.

The Gemara is aware that this connection is a bit unexpected; what does the mist have to do with our sukkot? It must be, says the Gemara, that this answer follows the opinion (of Rabbi Eliezer) that the sukkah symbolizes the Clouds of Glory. Clouds, like mist, form from earthly water evaporating and then condensing. So primal mist = clouds and clouds = sukkah. Because primal mist = product of the earth but not susceptible to impurity, therefore sukkah must = product of the earth but not susceptible to impurity.

I would like to suggest, however, that the mist also captures some of the in-between-ness that the very nature of the s’chach, detached but not totally reworked by humans, entails.

The mist of Bereishit Chapter 2 stands in contrast to the way water has been depicted until this point. The first earthly process (i.e., after the creation of light) of the six days of creation in Chapter 1 is the stark separation of upper and lower waters, followed by the cabining of the lower waters into “one place” (see 1:6-10). The mist of Chapter 2, in contrast, is the first time we see water move. And it moves in an unexpected direction: up.

As much as we know that clouds, too, come from water droplets that were most recently on earth, there is something about the designation “Clouds of Glory” that suggests that clouds from God must, in some way, come not up but down to us. In fact, the question of God’s “descent” is the subject of much debate earlier in Masechet Sukkah (5a), where the Talmud is adamant that God’s Presence (Shechinah) never descends within 10 tefachim (handbreadths) of the earth. This assertion (which seems contrary to the plain meaning of a host of biblical verses) comes up because the minimum height for a sukkah is 10 tefachim.

So we know that:

* The s’chach may represent the Clouds of Glory from God, or the huts the Israelites built for themselves.

* The s’chach must be a product of the earth, collected by humans but not worked into a fully human-made “utensil.”

* The s’chach is somehow connected to the primal mist that rose “up” from the ground in Bereishit because it is connected to the clouds.

* The minimum height of the sukkah, 10 tefachim above the earth, is also the farthest down that God can “descend.”

Putting this all together, we may begin to form an image of the sukkah as an in-between meeting place: neither fully natural nor fully human made; rising from the earth but reaching high enough for God to join.

In-between-ness can be destabilizing. When we find ourselves in between we may rush to pick one side or the other: either a rooted tree or a wooden spoon, but not a pile of branches. The rules of the sukkah, however, ask us to pause where we are and consider the possibilities of the in-between space, to contemplate the processes we ordinarily take for granted and imagine where we would be without each step, without both our own and God’s intervention. During this unique week we take natural elements and elevate them, literally, into s’chach, but we don’t fully work them into utensils (or into a full roof). We make sure the space is tall enough to welcome God’s presence in, but if we make it too permanent then it loses this status. When we leave the familiarity of our home for the impermanence of the sukkah we embrace precisely this in-between-ness as the place where connection to God can happen.

After Sukkot, after we leave the ethereal clouds of the sukkah, hopefully we can bring some of the attitude that we developed back with us. Indeed, starting right after Sukkot, the weekly parsha will bring us from the mist of Gan Eden (Garden of Eden) forward in time to the founding of human civilization and of the Jewish people, encouraging us to focus on mitzvot even in our ordinary, more permanent homes and lives.


Miriam Gedwiser teaches Talmud and Tanach at the Ramaz Upper School and is on the faculty of Drisha. A recovering attorney, she lives in Teaneck with her family.

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