By Yael Splansky
No matter how I might dream of trekking the beautiful, wide-open spaces of the Canadian wilderness—truth be told, I avoid tents, cold water, and bad weather whenever possible. I prefer to travel in the wilderness of Torah. The blisters I get in September are not from working with rake and hoe in the yard, but from rolling and rerolling our many Torah scrolls for the fall holy days. My splinters come from collecting schach for the roof of my sukkah and my mosquito bites are from making Kiddush there. Like Woody Allen, sometimes “I am at two with nature.”
Our Torah portion, by contrast, records Moses’s blessing of nature upon the People Israel.
“Thus Israel dwells in safety, Untroubled is Jacob’s abode, In a land of grain and wine, Under heavens dripping dew. O happy Israel! Who is like you, A people delivered by the Eternal.” (Deuteronomy 33:28–29a)
Moses prophesies that “the good Lord will provide” by causing the good land and the skies above it to provide. This is our prayer during the Festival of Sukkot. Rich earth, which produces “grain and wine.” “Heaven’s dripping dew,” which brings the rains in proper proportion. Like the ancient and modern-day farmer, we, too, can only hope for such good fortune. Heaven and earth are mostly the domain of God who created them. But what of the safe dwellings? What of “Jacob’s abode”? Who constructs and who protects these?
The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 11b) records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience wereananei kavod, (Divine) “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees: Sukkot mamash asu lahem, “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” This difference of opinion sparks two complementary lessons taught by this week’s joyful festival of Sukkot.
Rabbi Eliezer What were the “clouds of glory”? For Rabbi Eliezer, the clouds were a physical sign of God’s constant sheltering presence. Throughout our desert wanderings, God consistently provided for the Israelites with miracles. There was enough manna for everyone and a double portion fell in time for Shabbat. The water was plentiful enough even for their livestock. But the Israelites had to be trained to trust that there would always be enough. We had to be taught to collect only what we needed. We had to be disciplined in faith. The clouds of glory were a physical reminder of God’s nearness and care, a visual aid for developing trust.
Today, even with the unprecedented bounty we enjoy in this most blessed time and place, do we feel secure? Rabbi Eliezer says to us: Look to the sukkah and rediscover the faith we once knew in the desert. God longingly remembers a generation that trusted enough to leave the predictability of Egyptian slavery behind and march into the unknown. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkot we build today are designed to trigger our collective memory of when we knew how to behold God’s glory, to feel God’s sheltering Presence surrounding us on all four sides, above and below.
Rabbi Akiva Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, teaches that the sukkot were not Divine clouds of glory, but simply sukkot—huts, booths, the modest, temporary dwellings we built for ourselves throughout the forty years of wandering. While Rabbi Eliezer praises the generation of the desert for its ability to behold God’s redemptive power, Rabbi Akiva is critical of how they desired to return to Egypt. He accuses that generation of its misguided nostalgia for the false comfort of bricks and mortar, the false security in knowing that every day would be exactly like the one before it. Pharaoh’s Egypt was a godless, physical construction built on false foundations. Because the slave generation could not free themselves from the “edifice complex,” even while in the empty spaces of the wilderness, they were ultimately condemned to die there in the desert without reaching the Promised Land.
In another debate with Rabbi Eliezer (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 110b), Akiva declares that the desert generation is one of the few generations about which it can be said, “they have no portion in the world-to-come.” Akiva is known for his love and patience for the People Israel, so why was he so unforgiving of the sin of wanting to return to an illusion of security in Egypt? It’s only human nature to take comfort in things we can see and feel.
By my reading, Akiva warns: we are at risk of making idols out of our own homes. To believe there is real security in mortar and bricks is to erect a false god. Worse than the generation that built the Tower of Babel to reach God is the generation that looks at the works of its own hands and declares: “You are a god!” Why are the television news images from the lands hit by earthquake, tornado, and hurricane so gripping? Because the security we assign to house and home is literally torn down, ripped apart, and washed away right before our eyes. Anyone who sees such destruction, even from afar, is confronted with the basic truth—we are vulnerable, even in our own homes; we are forever vulnerable. And life is fragile.
According to Rabbi Akiva, the temporary sukkot we build teach that real security ultimately comes from trust, not from the physical. Levies may give way, but sacred relationships sustain us. Even the temporary relationships between strangers—one reaching out to the other—provide shelter in a way that a house cannot. This is why we are instructed to invite guests and strangers into our sukkot. Real security ultimately comes when relationships of trust are built between one another and with our God.
The Nature of Faith Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva look at the same object from two different perspectives. Rabbi Eliezer looks at the sukkah and sees security. Rabbi Akiva looks at the sukkah and sees insecurity.
Rabbi Eliezer recognizes that faith in God is a shaky shelter for many. He might say to us: You wanderers, you wilderness travelers, take shelter from the unpredictable world. See that “God is your protection,” Adonai sh’morecha, says the Psalmist. “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. God will keep you from all harm. God will watch over your very being. God will guard your going and coming, now and forever” (Psalm 121:6–8).
Coming from another angle, Rabbi Akiva reaches the same point. He warns that we are too secure in our physical constructions today; we don’t even know the difference between needs and wants. Dwelling in a sukkah for a week helps us recapture some of the insecurity that is felt by wanderers exposed. During the Festival of Sukkot we relearn how to build a shelter that is open to the elements—human and natural; we reconsider that to be human is to be vulnerable, to be a part of the world. No one can survive in a vacuum, in isolation from the elements. Nor can any physical structure provide protection from the storms of life.
This city girl has not yet found spiritual fulfillment sleeping under the leaky roof of a sukkah, but Sukkot is nevertheless my favorite holiday. Its themes of stability and instability instruct us to celebrate both what is plentiful and what is fleeting. In this season’s gentle wind and nourishing rain, let us hear Rabbi Eliezer’s voice of encouragement as well as Rabbi Akiva’s voice of warning, for both guide our search for the Divine.
Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh and she is a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.