By Josh Lake
During the holiday of Sukkot we are commanded to spend our time dwelling in booths. This commandment comes from the lines of Torah, “You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home born in Israel shall dwell in booths: that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 23:42-43). Our response to this commandment is to build Sukkoth, or booths during Sukkot. This seems like an easy Mitzvah to perform. That is, until our rabbis disagree about the meaning of the text.
According to Rabbi Eliezer, Rashi and the Ramban “booths” refers to “clouds of glory” (כבוד אנני) that G-D enshrouded Israel in to protect them while they wandered in the desert (bamidbar). These types of booths are much harder to build then the “booths” of Rabbi Akiva, The Rashban and Ibn Ezra. They saw the booths as actual booths סכות (ממש) that we can build and dwell in, as our ancestors did when they wandered through the desert. The two sides of the debate are opposed and there is little room for Rabbi Akiva’s camp to agree with Rabbi Eliezer’s camp. That is, until you build a sukkah with teenagers. Then surprises happen that only come from experience.
Years ago I led a camp program that paired Israeli teens with American teens. The program was to have the campers sleeping, eating, and adventuring outdoors, and to culminate with a building project. One of the first purchases I made for the program was a carport tent (a giant tent/awning), which we would use as our base camp. We would use this sheltered space for eating, gathering and sleeping. The building of the carport shelter was to be the first group activity. We opened the box and found hundreds of various pieces of piping, ties, unions, cords and plastic pieces, but no instructions for assembly. This was a major programmatic problem as the program relied on this space and this activity for its success. In desperation I tried to obtain assembly instructions. I called the store and tried to have them fax instructions. I went online to try to download instructions. I was about to head back to the store (more then a 2-hour round trip, and 2 hours of valuable program time wasted) when the campers decided they would like to “go for it” and attempt to build without instructions.
For the next 4 hours I watched and helped the campers put together our carport without instructions. Every camper was in action; experimenting, cooperating, communicating and working together to try to figure out the difficult task of assembling the pieces of the puzzle into a functioning, stable and needed resource. The result was a functional, standing booth, a ממש סכות. But our booth was much more then a physical structure. It helped create our community. The experience laid the foundation, literally and figuratively, for a great summer together. Watching the campers in action on that first day of meeting was watching our community set up its “clouds of glory.” The foundation they laid that day set a trajectory for the next 4-weeks of travel and building. The program, and our time together, was phenomenally successful. The Surprise Problem of no instructions actually turned into an experience that could not have been preplanned or predetermined.
Sukkah Building 101
The Sukkah, with its metaphorical and practical implications for Jewish groups, can and should be a unique group building experience. Last summer I had the opportunity to work with campers from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. During a Shavuah Sababa week campers were given the opportunity to explore activities ranging from fine and performance art to outdoor Jewish activities. I was asked to lead the outdoor Jewish activities intensive. I decided to make the experience of setting up a Sukkah the core theme of the week. The campers and I first studied text from the Torah and learned about Jews in the wilderness, bamidbar. In hevruta study we learned about the laws surrounding the Mitzvah of building a Sukkah. We then studied different commentaries about Sukkoth; from Rashi and Rabbi Akiva we learned their unique perspectives on the text in the Torah and the valuable lessons of disagreement.
We then took our learning out of the psychological/text centric realm and applied it to the experiential realm of camp. We learned how to make rope (a process I call Yocheved’s skill, as she knew how to make rope form natural resources, reeds in her case, raffia in ours). After learning to make rope we learned how to lash (a skill used to attach two pieces of wood together using rope) and we practiced lashing Magen Davids. After lashing we broke into groups: one group of campers scouted an area appropriate for building our Sukkah, another group went into the forest and found long poles for the sides and top of the Sukkah and marked them, and others went to the forest with saws and loppers to cut the poles (all collected from ground detritus or dead snags). Finally, we congregated at the site our scouts had chosen and proceded to build our Sukkah.
The culmination of learning from the Torah, hevruta study, learning and practicing fun and experiential skills was a beautiful Sukkah. In the process of creating a beautiful Sukkah, the themes of communication, cooperation, teamwork and leadership reemerged. Again, the result of building a Sukkah together resulted in more than a booth, it resulted in clouds of glory, כבוד אנני: the “glory” being the development of a community that works together to create a protective shelter in the woods.
The Built Booth
We are commanded to spend our time in booths, whether they be the protective booths of Rashi or in the built booths of Rabbi Akiva. In either case it is the experience we are trying to remember and recreate. Both booths are more meaningful when surrounded by community. And in both cases, when they are built by the community, they become even stronger. The experience of the built booth does far more then fulfill a mitzvah, it builds community.
A Concluding Thought
Many years ago when I was studying at JTS someone told me that every blessing should be preceded or followed by an action, by an experience. While I cannot speak to this halakhically, it bears witness. After we say the blessing over wine, we drink wine. After we say Hamotzi we eat bread, before we light Shabbat candles, we say a blessing. When we wake in the morning, we recite a blessing, and when we go to the bathroom, there is an appropriate blessing that is said. All these blessings are centered around action. Perhaps the act of studying Torah needs to be preceded or followed by an experience. The experiences are spelled out for us in the text of the Torah; building an ark to study Noah, building a Mishkan to study wandering in the desert, sewing clothes to study the priestly garb of Aaron. If the lessons of the Sukkah can be expanded into lessons of experiential relationships with Judaism, perhaps it is time that Jewish students learn through hands on projects that compliment text/book study. Judaism is much to rich to “learn” about, Judaism needs to be experienced.
Josh Lake works with Jewish groups around the world to make nature a Jewish classroom. Josh is a graduate of the JTS school of education (1997) and founded Outdoor Jewish Adventures in 2003. He lives in Portland, Or, with his wife Tamar and daughters Ayelet and Dov.