The Festival of Sukkot, God’s Protection and the Benefit of Hugging
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
We are going to start to celebrate the festival of Sukkot this Monday evening, September 20th. During seven days, we eat, drink, have conversations with family and friends, read and some people sleep in a temporary structure, or hut, known as a Sukkah.
The Rabbis of the Talmud offer two competing interpretations of the sukkah (BT Sukkah 11b): according to Rabbi Akiva, the sukkah commemorates the physical sukkot in which the Israelites dwelt during their forty nomadic years in the desert; according to Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkah represents the ananei hakavod (the Clouds of Glory), the divine presence that protected the Israelites through their wanderings.
The word sukkah literally means shelter. According to Rabbi Akiva, the Sukkah refers to a physical protection and according to Rabbi Eliezer, it refers to a divine protection. Both sages agree that the Sukkah has the function of protecting us.
In Haskivenu, the second blessing after Shema Israel, we refer to God as “the One who spreads the shelter of peace over us, and over all His people Israel.”
The structure of the Sukkah consists of walls and a roof composed of material that grew from the ground, like bamboo, straw, or branches. According to Jewish law, a Sukkah must have, at least, two complete walls plus a third wall that may even be merely one handbreadth long.(Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim section 630)
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the leading Kabbalist of the 16th century in Tzefat, understands the verse from the Song of Songs, “His left arm lay under my head and His right arm embraces me” (2:6), saying that these two parts of the verse can be addressed as two distinct moments in the relationship between God and His people.
During the “days of awe,” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God’s “left arm lay under the head” of the Jewish people. In Kabbalah, the left side represents introspection, discipline, and integrity, and this is the primary theme of the days of awe. On the other hand, Sukkot constitutes the time of the year when “God’s right arm embraces me.“
Rabbi Isaac Luria explained this idea looking at human being’s arms: “Take a look at any of your arms, and you will notice its division into three distinct sections, each one usually extending in a different direction. The first is the arm itself, from the shoulder to the elbow; the second is the forearm, from the elbow to the wrist; and the third section is, from the wrist to the ends of the fingers.
Now, imagine a Sukkah with two walls and a half and you would be able to compare it with a “right arm’s embrace.” The first complete wall represents a Divine embrace from the “shoulder” to the “elbow”; the second wall reflects the embrace of the “forearm,” and the third tiny wall symbolizes the palm’s embrace.” Thus, according to Rabbi Luria, we can see the Sukkah as God’s embrace and protection.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach teaches that to be forgiven is powerful, but to be forgiven and then get a big hug means that the forgiveness is deep and real. The Sukkah we build during Sukkot is like a hug of forgiveness from God after praying during Yom Kippur.
I really love the idea that when we enter into the Sukkah and stay there it is like being hugged by God, like a parent hugging their children. A hug, as you know, shows a solid and deep love and bond existing between the two people embracing each other.
It is interesting to note that during Sukkot we are embraced, held by the Sukkah and, at the same time, we have another important Mitzvah in which we are the holders. We need to hold together in our hands the four species (Lulav, palm date branches; Hadas, myrtle branches; Arava, willow branches; and the Etrog).
During Sukkot we are engaged in a reciprocal act of holding and being held. I believe that these acts of embrace represent a mutual relationship between us and God and between us and our beloved ones.
We can say that the Festival of Sukkot with its two main mitzvot, the dwelling in the Sukkah and the holding of the four species, reminds us of the importance and benefits of hugging.
Babies know how nice, comfortable and warmth it is to be hugged by their parents. Children feel relief when their parents hug them, removing their fears, sadness, worries and frustrations. However, sometimes, adults forget the importance and benefit of giving a hug and being hugged.
We forget how good a hug makes us feel when we are sad, depressed, scared, frustrated, angry and even when we are happy and want to celebrate and share with someone our happiness and joy.
Ann Hood, the American novelist and short story writer, says: “I have learned that there is more power in a good strong hug than in a thousand meaningful words.”
Kathleen Keating, author of “The Hug Therapy Book” says: “A hug makes you feel good all day.”
During this Shabbat, prior to the festival of Sukkot, we can reflect on the Sukkah as a symbol of God’s protection and as a hug from God.
We can reflect on the fact that we are engaged in a reciprocal act of holding and being held.
We can reflect on the importance and benefit of hugging. We can try to hug our parents, children, spouses, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, and friends more often, showing them our deep love and affection.
May we be able to hug our beloved ones more often, as God embraces us during Sukkot.