By Liba Schwartz
In Leviticus 23:42, we are commanded to dwell in sukkot (booths) so that future generations may know that God made the Israelites live in sukkot when they were brought out from Egypt. I began to wonder whether or not the Israelites in the desert ever actually fulfilled the commandment to dwell in sukkot. After all, where would they have found the material to build a traditional sukkah in the desert? And doesn’t the Torah describe the Israelites as living in ohalim, tents, not sukkot?
The great sage, Rabbi Akiva, is quoted in the Sifra, a collection of midrashim on the book of Exodus, as concluding that the Israelites never actually built or lived in sukkot. He understood the sukkah symbolically, as the protective cloud of God’s presence that enveloped the Israelites throughout their journey in the desert. For Rabbi Akiva, the festival of Sukkot represents a time when God’s love, concern and care for the Israelites is most evident. This can bring us comfort because, even though the Israelites faced so many challenges when they were wandering, they knew that they had the benefit of God’s protection.
This interpretation really resonated for me as I feel so fortunate to have had a permanent home and safe shelter during the harshest times of the COVID-19 pandemic. I felt the love of my family and support of my community during these past 20 months. On the other hand, Sukkot reminds us that even in our joy, we are obligated to remember those who lack permanence and protection. This is why I chose to fundraise and volunteer for Bedtime in a Box for my bat mitzvah project. This nonprofit creates special boxes filled with the necessities that ensure a stable bedtime routine for children from families in need. We often take bedtime for granted, and yet so many children lack proper clothing, toiletries and reading materials to create stability during the evening hours.
As I sit in my sukkah this year and look upon the full moon and stars in the sky, I will take with me Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation about Sukkot representing God’s protection over the Jewish people and how we can provide comfort for others as well.
Liba Schwartz is an eighth grader at Krieger Schechter Day School.