These remarks are adapted from a talk given by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz in 2016.
Sukkot: A Love Affair
The holiday of Sukkot speaks about Jews living in Tabernacles in the desert. In the Talmud, there’s a description of the sukka as the Clouds of Glory: the sukka is not a building – it’s not stable – it is a cover that you just put up.
According to the halakha, the sukka is made of two sides, with one side the length of a tefach (a handsbreadth). The sukka, in its physical form, is, in a way, a hug. The inner sense of the holiday of Sukkot is not one of remembering anything in particular, but welcoming the divine hug.
Sukkot is a holiday for gladness. Part of the holiday is being connected to the divine in a physical way. To quote from the Song of Songs, “His left hand is below my head.” In that, Rosh HaShana, the head, is cradled in the left hand, which is the strong, or harsh hand. But then, we could say “his right hand hugs me.” In this way, Sukkot – and the whole month of Tishrei – becomes an interesting and very touching love affair with God.
In the Bible, in Trei Assar, is mention of Redemption, where it says, “And you, people of Israel, will sit in Tabernacles, as in the time of the Holiday.” This is kind of a prophecy, but in a certain way it also evokes a time where we were in love with God, as when we were in the desert – we were alone together, nobody interfered.
Therefore, going back to living in a sukka is not just exiting the home, as many people think of it, but more akin to taking a hike. You get back to the desert – you go back to the point where you didn’t live in a forty-four-story building, but you lived in a small hut without proper walls or roof, just some cover over your head. Sukkot is, in some way, going back to a less civilized life, away from an established life, to reconnect to a simpler, more joyous time. We sit in the Tabernacles as in the times of our beginning.
Sukkot: The Four Species into One Bunch
A general premise of the holiday of Sukkot – which, in the Torah itself, is put in a separate section – is holding and shaking the four kinds of plants. (We call it Lulav after the most prominent one, which we say a blessing over, even though there are four different plants). The symbolism of these four plants is found in very old sources, and everybody who has ever heard a sermon from a rabbi has heard about the Lulav and what kind of person it symbolizes, even what personality of dog it symbolizes…
That is all very nice and very touching. But there’s another way of looking at it wherein the four different plants represent the four different geographical areas in Eretz Israel, speaking for and symbolizing those regions to which each plant is specifically connected.
The etrog is subtropical and grows in the flatlands – the Shephelah – so it represents this part of the country. The myrtle grows on the hills and the mountains, thriving in the cooler altitudes where it would wither at sea-level. Myrtle grows wild or can also be cultivated in the hilly regions. Both these types of plants continue to grow in these areas where they are traditionally found.
Now, the aravah, the willow, represents the streams along which it always grows. That’s another part of the country – it’s another quality of the country, where the willow grows wild. It isn’t usually planted, but instead crops up wherever the flowing water is. The willow is used for many purposes, but isn’t generally known for any particularly striking quality. But it is the thing that adorns the streams of every country, including of Eretz Israel.
And then comes the lulav: the palm tree. The palm tree grows, usually, in an oasis. It’s said of the palm tree that its legs are in heaven, because they are always connected to water below, and its head is in hell, because it grows in such hot, arid places – at least, it does in the hotter areas of Eretz Israel. Palm trees don’t grow so well in other places, and the fruit it bears isn’t as good when out of its preferred climate. The good palm fruit is from the hot parts of Eretz Israel, in the low hot lands which have water and heat.
In this sense, the four different kinds of plants symbolize the qualities of, and represent the regions of, Eretz Israel. Each of them is part of the country, each of those pieces speaks to one part of the country. In putting them together we are connecting the whole land into one bundle that we can hold.