What is a Sukkah? Leviticus 23:42-43, part of the Torah reading for the festival, contains the commandment to dwell in Sukkot as a reminder for all generations of how God made the Israelites live in Sukkot when God took them out of Egypt. The Talmud refers to Sukkot (Booths) as the Clouds of Glory which surrounded and protected the Israelites during their forty years in the desert. To further understand the essence of a Sukkah let us examine the first time it is referenced in the Torah. After Jacob survives a threatening confrontation with his brother Esau, the Torah records the following: “And on that day Esau returned on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed on to Sukkot, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle; that is why the place was called Sukkot” (Gen. 33:17).
Why does Jacob choose a place name representing temporal animal structures as opposed to naming it after the human abodes, after family members or even God? Rabbi Ḥayim ibn Attar, one of the most prominent Rabbis in Morocco also known as the Ohr HaḤayim after his commentary on the Torah, points out that Jacob did something revolutionary in the history of humankind. He constructed shelters of protection for his animals. Jacob therefore teaches us that not only must one have compassion for human beings; one must show appreciation and have compassion for animals as well.
This may also help us gain an insight into the essence of our Sukkot. The Torah depicts Esau going back home to his old predictable ways. Jacob, however, did something beyond the norm, outside his home. He did not walk away from his brush with death the same as he entered. Neither did he become bitter from the experience. Rather, he became better. The metaphor for that improvement was his innovation in creating an expanded arena for compassion in the universe. That is the Sukkah.
According to Exodus 12:37, Sukkot is the name of the first stop on the Exodus route from Egypt. After our raw encounter with life and death during the Days of Awe, a Sukkah, like a clean parchment or canvas, becomes a place where everyone can express some renewed sense of gratitude or idealism in an individual way. A Sukkah has limitless possibilities of artistic expression, and so do we when we exit the ordinary. This Sukkot, like Jacob, may we too think outside the box by thinking inside the box.