Unlike many Torah portions that deal with complex and seemingly remote issues, Parshat Re'eh features the foundational sources of several holidays. What could be more popular than that!
With Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot all present in the parsha, the only challenge is choosing one topic for discussion. Because my bar mitzvah happened to take place on Sukkot, I chose to write a few words about this charming holiday.
Every Jewish holiday is accompanied by basic fundamental questions. The classic example is Pesach, filled with questions such as: Why do we eat matzo? And why four cups of wine?
So, what is Sukkot's basic question? Well, actually, it's a very simple one. Why do we celebrate Sukkot when we do?
Rabbi Yaakov Baal Haturim, a 14th century Spanish scholar, suggests that we intentionally construct the sukkah, a hut or booth, in the chillier fall season in order to attract attention. He comments that, "Even though He took us out of Egypt on the month of Nissan, He did not command us to make a sukkah at that time, because it is the summer time when people already make sukkot for shade, and therefore if we sat in sukkot then it would not be obvious that we are doing so because it is commanded by the Creator. Rather, we do so in Tishri, during the rainy season, a time when people are leaving their shade-huts and moving indoors, thereby distinguishing that we are building sukkot for the specific purpose of fulfilling the commandment."
In other words, we celebrate Sukkot at the "wrong time." Perhaps we should be sitting in the sukkah on the night of the Seder. After all, that is when we went out of Egypt. So why do we wait half a year? The answer of the Baal Haturim at first seems strange. To sit in the sukkah in the spring – that would be too easy. Let's see you sit outside in the cold and rain! That's serious! Or as my grandmother would say, "It's no trick to make chocolate mousse from good chocolate cream and eggs. The trick is to make it from breadcrumbs and sugar!"
Is there perhaps a deeper notion here than merely the idea of challenging ourselves? Sukkot follows the end of summer, filled with outdoor social activities. It also comes at the end of the High Holidays, a time of spiritual elevation and moral improvement. Before we move indoors for the winter, totally sheltering ourselves within our homes, Sukkot comes to teach us the meaning of true shelter inside a home. Looking up in the sukkah, we see heaven as a roof over our heads, and are reminded of a different kind of security in the world than the security of a home with four walls and a locked door. More so, in contrast to our notion of private property and private space, the doors to the sukkah are always open, signifying that our homes should always be open and welcoming to guests.
In reality, Sukkot’s occurrence during the rainy and cold fall is not meant to simply make celebrating a more challenging experience. Instead, Sukkot was moved from the spring to the fall in order to give us a timely training seminar in kindness and hospitality. It helps us realize we must always welcome others into our homes and our lives, even when the task is not easily completed. Although Sukkot may still be a little bit away, we at Hillel can still draw valuable principles from the lessons of Sukkot. As we prepare for students returning to campus, we should take the time to reflect and consider how we can better create an atmosphere that truly welcome students into Jewish spaces and invites them to open our doors.
Prepared by Rabbi Ori Melamed, Jewish Learning on Campus Initiative of Rutgers University Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Re'eh at MyJewishLearning.com.