For seven days…all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot [thatched huts]. (Vayikra 23:42). This teaches that it is fitting for all of Israel to sit in one sukkah. (From the Talmud, Sukkah 27b)
Can all Your people
dwell in one sukkah?
No well-built fortress, this,
with vaulted ceiling
and buttressed pillars to hold it up –
its gaping roof and fragile walls
expose us all: left-wing and right;
those who deny Your existence
and those who tremble before You;
those who would transmit Your word
and those who would renew it;
the native born and those
still searching for their place;
scions of the ancient tree
and later-grafted branches.
And yet spread over us
Your sukkah of peace,
for as the walls sway in the wind
and star-lit rain seeps through the roof,
a song of unity may yet emerge.
In his book Silver from the Land of Israel (based on the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook*), Rabbi Chanan Morrison has collected some of Rav Kook’s teachings on Shabbat and Chagim. Here are two of the questions (from Mo’adei HaRe’iyah) that Rav Kook raises about Sukkot. The first concerns the remarkable claim made in the Talmud, “…it is fitting for all of Israel to sit in one sukkah.” Rav Kook wonders what is behind this utopian vision. He answers that Yom Kippur illuminates our lives with the light of teshuvah and facilitates an increasing harmony among the diverse sectors of the nation. He sees Sukkot as a special time when, having undergone a spiritual ascent during the Days of Awe, and having attained “a comprehensive unity… that extends its holy light over all parts of the Jewish people…it is as if the entire nation is sitting together, sharing the holy experience of the same sukkah.” Rav Kook cites the Chasidic master Rabbi Natan** who deems this sense of unity to be the very essence of the mitzvah of Sukkot, “One should concentrate on being part of the entire people of Israel, with intense love and peace, until it may be considered as if all of Israel dwells together in one sukkah.”
This unity is indeed a theme of Sukkot: the mitzvah in Vayikra (23:40) enjoins us to take the arba’ah minim – the four species: the etrog – citron; the lulav – palm frond; the hadasim – myrtle branches; and the aravot – willow branches. A Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (30:10-12) likens these to all the members of the community: those both learned and pious; those only learned; or only pious; and those who are neither – but all have a place if the community is to be complete.
A further unifying feature of Sukkot was the Hakhel – assembly of all the people on Sukkot at the end of the Shemittah year. The entire community would gather together – men, women, children, and strangers, to hear the Teaching – the whole book of Devarim (which would take about 3-4 hours to read). This was to ensure that not only the intellectual or priestly elite would be familiar with the Torah but all the people would hear it.
A second question which Rav Kook addresses is the peculiar metaphor for peace in the Shabbat evening prayers, “U’fros aleinu sukkat shelomecha – May You spread over us a sukkah of Your peace.” Rav Kook asks why we pray that peace would be in a makeshift, temporary booth and not a robust and permanent fortress of peace? He answers that Jewish law validates a sukkah even when it has huge holes and little more than two walls. “Even such a fragile structure still qualifies as a kosher sukkah. The same is true regarding peace. Peace is so precious, so vital, that even if we are unable to attain a complete peace, we should still pursue a partial measure of peace. Even an imperfect peace, between neighbours, or between an individual and the community, is worthwhile.
“How great is peace!” proclaimed the Sages (Vayikra Rabbah 9:9). The value of peace is so great that we pray for it even if it will be like a sukkah – flimsy and temporary, rendered fit only by special laws.”
*Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, the founder of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav Kook (The Central Yeshiva For The Masses), Jewish thinker, Halachist, Kabbalist and a renowned Torah scholar. Also known by the acronym HaRe’iyah, he was one of the most celebrated and influential rabbis of the 20th century.
Rav Kook was born in Grīva in the Courland Governorate of the Russian Empire in 1865 (today a part of Daugavpils, Latvia), the oldest of eight children. His father, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ha-Cohen Kook, was a student of the Volozhin Yeshiva. As a child Rav Kook gained the reputation of being an ilui – a prodigy. He entered the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1884 at the age of 18, where he became close to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv). Although he stayed at the yeshiva for only a year and a half, the Netziv has been quoted as saying that if the Volozhin Yeshiva had been founded just to educate Rav Kook, it would have been worthwhile.
In 1887, at the age of 23, Rav Kook entered his first rabbinical position as rabbi of Zaumel, Lithuania, and in 1895 he became the rabbi of Bausk (now Bauska). Between 1901 and 1904, he published three articles which anticipate the fully developed philosophy which he developed in the Land of Israel. In 1904, he moved to Ottoman Palestine to assume the rabbinical post in Jaffa, which also included responsibility for the new mostly secular Zionist agricultural settlements nearby. During these years he wrote a number of works, most published posthumously, including a brief but powerful book on morality and spirituality, titled “Mussar Avicha“. In 1911 Rav Kook maintained a correspondence with the Jews of Yemen, and their reply was later published in a book. Rav Kook’s influence on people in different walks of life was already noticeable, as he engaged in kiruv – outreach, thereby creating a greater role for Torah and Halacha in the life of the city and the nearby settlements.
The outbreak of the First World War caught Rav Kook in Europe, and he was forced to remain in London and Switzerland for the remainder of the war. In 1916, he became rabbi of the Spitalfields Great Synagogue (Machzike Hadath – Upholders of the Faith), an immigrant Orthodox community in London. Upon returning, he was appointed the Ashkenazi Rabbi of Jerusalem, and soon after, as first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1921. Rav Kook founded the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1924 to serve as a beacon of Torah learning. He was a master of Halacha in the strictest sense, while at the same time possessing an unusual openness to new ideas. This drew many religious and nonreligious people to him, but also led to widespread misunderstanding of his ideas. He wrote prolifically on both Halacha and Jewish thought, and his books and personality continued to influence many even after his death in Jerusalem in 1935, reflected in attendance of his funeral by an estimated 20,000 mourners.
Rav Kook tried to build and maintain channels of communication and political alliances between the various Jewish sectors, including the secular Jewish Zionist leadership, the Religious Zionists, and more traditional non-Zionist Orthodox Jews. He believed that the modern movement to re-establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel had profound theological significance and that the Zionists were agents in a heavenly plan to bring about the messianic era. Per this ideology, the youthful, secular and even anti-religious Labor Zionist pioneers, chalutzim, were a part of a grand Divine process whereby the land and people of Israel were finally being redeemed from the 2,000-year exile by all manner of Jews who sacrificed themselves for the cause of building up the physical land, as laying the groundwork for the ultimate spiritual messianic redemption of world Jewry.
**Rabbi Natan of Breslov (1780 – 1844) (also known as Reb Noson) born Nathan Sternhartz, was the chief disciple and scribe of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, founder of the Breslov Chasidic dynasty. He is credited with preserving, promoting and expanding the Breslov movement after the Rebbe’s death. Rebbe Nachman himself said, “Were it not for Reb Noson, not a page of my writings would have remained.”
Rabbi Natan was born in the town of Nemyriv, Ukraine. His father, Rabbi Naphtali Hertz Sternhartz, was a Talmudic scholar of some distinction and a wealthy businessman. The firstborn of his family, he received a traditional Torah education and learned his father’s business. At the age of 13 (as was the custom), he married the daughter the leading rabbinical authority in Mohilov, Sharograd, and Kremenetz. Both his father and his father-in-law were staunch opponents of Chasidism.
Although he was a learned scholar, he felt that something was lacking in his spiritual devotions so he began to visit different Chasidic rebbes, including R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and was impressed by their followers’ sincerity. However, he could not summon the same intensity in his religious devotions. In 1802, R’ Nachman moved to Breslov, Ukraine, which is located nine miles south of Nemyriv (a three-hour journey by horse in those days). R’ Natan went to hear the Rebbe, who was only 8 years his senior, and found the spiritual advisor he was seeking. R’ Natan became R’ Nachman’s lifelong disciple.
Although his family was initially opposed to his association with Chasidism, they eventually relented when they saw that his Torah scholarship and personal piety only improved under the tutelage of R’ Nachman.
While R’ Nachman was alive, R’ Natan was his official scribe, carefully recording his teacher’s words. Because many of the lessons were delivered on Shabbatot and Chagim, and could not therefore be written down, the material had to be written down later. However, R’ Natan had a phenomenal memory and was able to recall many lessons almost word-for-word. He would then show the manuscript to the Rebbe, who would make any final corrections. Some lessons were dictated line by line by R’ Nachman to R’ Natan after the Shabbat or Chag in Yiddish, and R’ Natan would then translate the lessons into Hebrew. In his later publications, R’ Natan carefully notes whether a lesson was edited and approved by R’ Nachman himself, or was a less formal anecdote not specifically approved by him. He also makes a clear distinction between the Rebbe’s actual words and any comments he himself wrote.
After R’ Nachman’s death, R’ Natan moved to Breslov and began to be known as Nathan of Breslov. He became the leader of the Breslover Hasidim — but not the Rebbe, because R’ Nachman did not appoint a successor or establish a dynasty.
Instead, he devoted his energy to strengthening the Breslover movement while maintaining his own rigorous schedule of Torah study. He purchased a printing press and published all of R’ Nachman’s writings, as well as all the remembered conversations he and others had had with his teacher. R’ Natan also wrote many original discourses and teachings, some of which were published during his lifetime. He corresponded with Breslover Hasidim throughout Ukraine, and visited them several times a year.
R’ Natan was also responsible for making Uman, Ukraine, the city in which Rebbe Nachman is buried, into a focal point of the Chasidut. In 1811, he organized the first annual Rosh Hashana kibbutz (prayer gathering) at the gravesite, and continued to lead this pilgrimage until his death in 1844. Around 1830, he raised funds to build a synagogue in Uman to accommodate the increasingly large Rosh Hashana pilgrimage, and composed a number of prayers to be recited at R’ Nachman’s grave by his followers.
Even during R’ Nachman’s lifetime, some Chasidic groups opposed his novel approach to disseminating Chasidism. After his death, this opposition was directed at R’ Natan, who refused to assume the mantle of leadership and continued to promulgate the teachings of the deceased rebbe as if he were still alive. In late 1834, after the Breslover synagogue opened in Uman, Rabbi Moshe Zvi of Savran (the Savraner Rebbe) instigated a smear campaign against R’ Natan and the Breslover Hasidim. Opponents denounced him to the Russian authorities, claiming that he was a false prophet whose activities opposed the interests of the Czar. He was arrested, charged with treason, exiled to Nemirov (his hometown), and placed under house arrest.
A week before Rosh Hashana, however, he obtained a travel permit and journeyed to Uman in secret. He was discovered, however, reported to the authorities, and arrested on the night before Rosh HaShanah. Assimilated Jews who lived in Uman and who had been friendly with R’ Nachman intervened on his behalf and allowed him to remain in Uman for the holiday.
The sudden death of the Savraner Rebbe in 1838 cooled his followers’ antipathy and R’ Natan was finally able to return to the city of Breslov later that year. He died in 1844 and was buried in Breslov in the old Jewish cemetery.