The main mitzvah of Sukkot is the Sukkah, the temporary dwelling we construct as autumn is upon us (in the northern hemisphere). Most people use the Sukkah only for meals, but many fulfill the mitzvah to its fullest and also sleep in it.
Sukkot has dozens of specific halachot (religious laws). But if we step back for a moment and observe the Sukkah and what it symbolizes, perhaps there are few things we can learn that go beyond the particular fulfillment of specific laws.
The Sukkah is typically built from cheap materials: wood and/or cloth for the walls and tree leaves or branches for the roof. It is a temporary structure, but one that is our home for a week. Most of us spend our lives striving for bigger and more lavish houses to live in, but the Sukkah teaches us that we can make do with a very basic home. What is truly important about our home is not the walls or the roof, it is what is inside the house: us and our families and what we make of our homes. The Sukkah helps us realize the value of family and forget, if only for a week, about the external aspects of our home.
The Sukkah is built outside, and its incomplete roof enables us to see the sky. We are forced to pay attention to the weather and to nature, as our well-being in the Sukkah is directly affected by them. The artificial houses we live in – with insulation, air conditioning, electricity, etc. – have distanced us from nature. The Sukkah gives us the opportunity to reconnect with nature, to truly feel the weather, to witness sunrises and sunsets and to realize that we are part of nature.
But although we live outside, the Sukkah still has walls. They are imperfect walls, typically made of cloth, but walls nonetheless. This teaches us that no matter what, we need to establish barriers between ourselves and the external world. We need to find the correct balance between openness and isolation, to take what is good from the world but also be careful about what to keep out.
Finally, one of the important features of the Sukkah roof is that it must be more covered than open (casting more shade than letting in light). This teaches us that the things that are visibly clear to us are not necessarily the entire story. There are layers and meanings that are, so to speak, in the shade. That are not visible to us. We need to strive to uncover these layers, wherever they might occur in our lives: family, friends, strangers. There are people that need help to come out from the shade, and our job is to lend a helping hand when we can.
May the festival of Sukkot help us learn these lessons and hopefully implement them in our lives, even long after the Sukkah is dismantled and we return to our brick-and-mortar houses.
(The idea for this Thought is from Rabbi Yoni Lavi)