(Photo: IDF & Defense Establishment Archives)
The Fragility of Life:
Israel, Sukkot and the Yom Kippur War
BY RABBI DORON PEREZ
Perhaps the greatest inescapable truth of life is just how fragile and unpredictable it is. This vulnerability is present at every twist and turn.
No one believed that Israel could fall from the heights of the breathtaking victory of the Six-Day War to the horrific valley of tears in the Yom Kippur War. Only six short years after the daring miracles of the skies of arguably the greatest air force victory in history, Israel came within an inch of its destruction. The Israeli military stunned the enemy and the entire world in a preemptive surprise attack of biblical proportions in the Six-Day War and yet somehow were themselves totally stunned by a surprise attack from the very same nations so soon thereafter. Only 25 years after Israel’s remarkable founding and only six years after its greatest military victory, the country was on the brink of destruction.
Life can be so frail and fragile. There are the thinnest of lines between victory and defeat, life and death, the permanent and temporary and between triumph and tragedy. Everything that seems so permanent can change in an instant.
No festival embraces this vulnerability of life more than Sukkot. Both the sukkah itself and the four species, the two mitzvot of the festival, are an ongoing testament to this fragility. The sukkah is a transient abode whose whole essence is temporary. This is evident first and foremost in the main part of the sukkah – the roof known as the סְכָךְ (sechach) from whence the סוּכָּה (sukkah) gets its name. Normally the roof of a structure is strong, offering maximum protection from the elements. Yet in the case of the sukkah it is exactly the opposite. The sechach must be made from species of plants that were severed from the ground – hardly maximal protection. While the walls of the sukkah can be solid and stable like a building, the roof can only offer minimal protection. Although the meaning of the root word סְכָךְ is “cover” or “shield,” it offers only the most basic protection.
If this is true regarding the sukkah, it is equally true regarding the four species. All are plant species that, like the sechach, must be severed from their source, which means each will eventually run out of water, wither and wilt away.1 In fact, the arava (willow), the centerpiece of Hoshanah Rabbah, is the most vulnerable of all, and wilts and dies the quickest. All species are fully dependent on the unpredictable rain patterns and weather conditions and all reflect the flimsiness of life.
The sukkah and Israel – providence in action
Rambam believes that the greatest miracle of biblical times was not the Exodus from Egypt nor the revelation at Sinai, but the remarkable 40-year sojourn in the desert.2 During the 40 years in one of the hottest desert regions in the world and distant from all civil life, how could millions of men, women and children survive without food, water, or protection from merciless heat? How were they spared from serpents and scorpions?
It is this miraculous existence in the desert, opines the Ramban, that the festival of Sukkot commemorates.3 “For it was in sukkot that I placed you when I brought you out of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:43).
Whether it represents the desert huts or the miraculous clouds of glory, the sukkah is an eternal symbol of the miraculous divine protection and providence that accompanied the Jewish people on their arduous 40-year journey to the promised Land. Had this miracle not transpired, the people would have died in the desert and the remarkable miracles of the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea and the revelation at Sinai would have amounted to naught. The flimsy sukkah represents divine providence and protection against the vulnerability of the external elements, be they natural or human threats.
Similarly, the Land of Israel is an ongoing testament to Hashem’s divine providence. This is explicit in the verses of the Torah about the uniqueness of the Land of Israel, in contrast to Egypt. The Torah juxtaposes Israel to the land of Egypt – its water source is guaranteed by the abundant waters of the Nile as opposed to Israel which has no great rivers and is dependent on rainwater, which varies greatly from season to season. Israel is eternally dependent on unpredictable weather and rainfall patterns and therefore on divine providence. “It is a land which Hashem your G-d looks after, on which Hashem your G-d always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Devarim 11:12).
One of the smallest of all lands, Eretz Yisrael is situated at the nexus of Africa, Asia and Europe. Throughout the generations, many empires and armies crossed through it and conquered it, regularly exposing it to human caprice. Yet, like the sukkah, its strength lies not in its defenses and structure but in the hands of providence, hashgacha, the divine supervision of Hashem who always cares for the survival and destiny of the Jewish people.
The sukkah and Israel – all in
The connection between the sukkah and Israel runs even deeper. They are the only two mitzvot in the entire Torah where you fulfill the mitzvah by living somewhere, with your entire body.
Regarding the sukkah the verse states “בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, You shall dwell in a sukkah for seven days” (Vayikra 23:42). Famously, the Talmud (Sukkah 28b) says תֵּשְׁבוּ כְּעֵין תָּדוּרוּ – the word תֵּשְׁבוּ means “to live,” which means to leave our houses and live as much as possible in our sukkot, eating, sleeping and spending time in the sukkah as if it is our home. The same terminology applies to living in Israel. “וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ, You should conquer and inherit the land and dwell in it” (Bamidbar 33:53). The verse talks about two separate mitzvot – to conquer the Land and exercise sovereignty over it, and to settle and live in the Land. The Gaon of Vilna points out the connection between these two mitzvot. Just as a sukkah must be proactively constructed by having the sechach – the main part of the sukkah which bears its name – placed on it at the end to complete the building,4 so too will be the future redemption of the rebuilding of Israel. It was the Vilna Gaon who sent his students to Israel in the early 1800s and played a major role in building the foundations of what became the Old Yishuv. His students were the first to build suburbs outside of the Old City. The Vilna Gaon believed in proactively settling the land.
The Sukkot war
It is most meaningful that the tide of the Yom Kippur War turned on Sukkot. Israel gained the upper hand on the first day of Sukkot against the Syrians in the north and on Chol HaMoed Sukkot against the Egyptians in the south. Although the war became known as the Yom Kippur War, it could also have been appropriately named the “Sukkot War.” On the festival of providence and joy, the Heavens began to smile on Israel and the battles shifted on both fronts from desperate defense to successful offense.
Perhaps this is the eternal lesson of the sukkah in our private lives and of Israel in our collective lives. They are a celebration of the vulnerability of life, because life itself is fully dependent on providence, Hashem’s hashgacha. Yes, we must actively build our sukkot to ensure that we are able to live in it for seven days. And yes, we must proactively build our country and become an influential nation among the peoples of the world. Life, however, is fraught with fragility and we are always susceptible, no matter what we do, to natural and human factors beyond our control.5
It is here that faith in G-d has a critical part to play.
Shadow of faith
In mystical writings, the sukkah is referred to as צִלָּא דְּמֵהֵימָנוּתָא, “the shadow of faith.” Nothing is more temporal and transient than a shadow. It has no existence of its own and can disappear in a moment. Such is the nature of life and such is the reality of the human condition. Yet, with faith in Hashem, the Creator and Sustainer of life, and notwithstanding the unpredictability of life, we live in G-d’s world, not ours. In His world, nothing is happenstance and somehow all that transpires is for the best and part of Hashem’s providential plan. When we center our lives on our relationship with Hashem, the Source of permanence and providence, both the flimsy sukkah and the tiny Land of Israel are more than secure. They are our spiritual “Iron Dome” of Jewish fate and destiny.
1 Just as the four species are fully dependent on water for their survival, so are we for our sustenance, underscoring a sense of dependence and vulnerability (Ta’anit 2b).
2 Guide to the Perplexed, Section 3, chapter 50.
3 Ramban, Vayikra 23:43.
4 A sukkah must be תַּעֲשֶׂה וְלֹא מִן הֶעָשׂוּי, proactively created (Sukkah 11b).
5 A further connection between Sukkot and the Land of Israel is made by the Abarbanel (Commentary to Devarim 16). He states that while Pesach is focused on the creation of Am Yisrael and Shavuot is focused on the Torah and the revelation at Sinai, Sukkot is about Eretz Yisrael. He states that the festival is seven days long because it reflects the seven species of the Land. Many have the custom of having the seven species in the sukkah.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.