When we dwell in the Sukkah we cannot but remember both our dependence and vulnerability. In Glasgow there was not a Sukkot -- or nearly any other day for that matter -- when it did not rain. In Edmonton it was nearly always freezing and there was often the danger of snow. Here in Tokyo, so far it is beautiful but (a bit too) hot. There is also the danger of a typhoon. Indeed, a small one blew through on Sunday and Monday. The only places I have been for a perfect Sukkot were San Diego and Jerusalem. Perhaps there is a spiritual connection between Israel and Southern California.
The Sukkah also reminds us that there is an unfinished aspect to the holiday. The meanings of the other Pilgrimage Festivals are clear. Pesach celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Sukkot is much more amorphous. It commemorates the 40-year period of essential homeless as the Israelites journeyed to the Promised Land. It is therefore a reminder that we too are on a journey, moving hopefully towards a final redemption of the world. Perhaps at the simplest level, the experience of homelessness should fill us with a sense of obligation towards those in need, which are unfortunately not in short supply throughout the world. On a more spiritual plain, Sukkot impels us to leave our safety zones, the materialistic world that we have created, and to experience the simplicity and unity of nature, leading us hopefully to instill that sense of unity in our lives and in all we do.
As I think of Sukkot, I am reminded of a prayer by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who observed the custom of meditating out in the forests and fields. In the synagogue we experience God through the liturgies, Torah cycle, teachings and most importantly through community. The natural world has another equally important message. It is the locus both of creation and of revelation.
"Grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass - among all growing
things and there may I be alone, and enter into
prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field - all grasses,
trees, and plants - awake at my coming, to send
the powers of their life into the words of my prayer
so that my prayer and speech are made whole
through the life and spirit of all growing things,
which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
May I then pour out the words of my heart before
your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my
hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and that
of my children!"
For me, like Rabbi Nachman, nature is the locus of revelation. The forest, the flowers, the birds and bees and all the natural wonders around us are miracles, which we rarely open our eyes to see. Each is a revelation of the Divine, each a microcosm of Torah through which we can find truths. Everything around us is a bush burning, yet not consumed. Sukkot demands that we leave our houses and even our Shuls. It demands we go out into the "wilderness" to find God.
For more thoughts on Sukkot, check out "Lost in Translation", my blog describing my experiences as a rabbi in Tokyo.