The commandment to sit in the sukkah is rather unusual. We fulfill the mitzvah of, “You shall live in the sukkah for seven days” (Vayikra 23:42) by simply eating meals and sleeping in the sukkah. Since when is sleeping a mitzvah? Sleeping is a lack of consciousness; getting enough rest is certainly a necessary prerequisite to serving G-d, but a mitzvah? In fact, the Gemara in Sukkah (28b) says that if a person chooses to eat a snack in the sukkah, or simply to relax there, that is also a mitzvah.
It is incredible to think that reading a newspaper in one’s home is just reading a newspaper, but if we do so in the sukkah during the holiday, it is a mitzvah. This is a great deal we are getting – snacks, reading the news, chatting with friends, even a little shuteye is a religious act! How do we understand this?
The Torah explains that we must sit in the sukkah “so that your generations will know that I provided sukkot to Bnei Yisrael when I took them out of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:43). The Gemara in Sukkah (11b) records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer, who maintains that the sukkah represents the Clouds of Glory with which Hashem protected us in the desert, and Rabbi Akiva, who says they were actual huts that Hashem provided for us there. What is the core of this debate?
In Rabbi Eliezer’s view, the sukkah represents all of the supernatural ways in which Hashem took care of us in the desert – manna falling from heaven, the water flowing from the rock, our clothing never wearing out. The sukkah reminds us of that special time, so different from ours, when our very existence was filled with daily miracles. When we reflect on this supernatural protection, we internalize Hashem’s power, kindness, and the fact that He chose us as His special nation. This experience can help us with both our faith in G-d during a time without open miracles, and also help us feel grateful to Hashem for our very existence as a people. We might also reflect on where we see miraculous events in our lives, such as the founding of the State of Israel against all odds, and the victory of the Six-Day War despite the sense of doom that preceded it.
Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, holds that we are remembering the actual huts Hashem provided, not something miraculous but simply the roofs over our heads in the desert. Perhaps this represents all that we have in our lives that seems to come by natural means, and that we therefore often take for granted, such as physical shelter, rainfall and good health. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s understanding is the reason that the most mundane and seemingly non-spiritual activities become a mitzvah in the sukkah. The message of the sukkah is that our very lives are meant to be lived with a sense of gratitude to Hashem for all of the opportunities and blessings in our lives. Sometimes they seem like miracles, and sometimes they are just part of life, but we learn to be grateful for these kindnesses, whether they are obvious or hidden.
Moreover, by turning every single act into a mitzvah, we live with the sense that G-d is above us, and that every action in our lives can and should be done l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Eating and sleeping are not simply things we do because we want to or need to, but they are part of our spiritual lives, part of our service to G-d. On Sukkot, we live lives that are sanctified on that high level for an entire week. And this week prepares us for the rest of the year – for the rainy season in Israel that we pray will follow, for the school year that has just begun, for all the endeavors we begin in the new year – and reminds us that even when we are at work, at school, and at home, even when eating and sleeping, we are serving Hashem and are under His protection and care.