Sukkah, Beit Hamikdash, and Eternal Love

I had the opportunity the other day to have my middle school students over in my sukkah, and I shared the D’var Torah below. I am sharing it now for any larger benefit it may serve.

There is a curious addition to the Birkat Hamazon of Sukkot which finds little parallel among the other holidays of the year. Near the end of Birkat Hamazon, we add the line הרחמן, הוא יקים לנו את סוכת דוד הנופלת; “May He Who is merciful raise up for us the sukkah of King David that has fallen.” This brief addition begs several questions. 1) Why the need for an addition to the Birkat Hamazon of Sukkot, when no parallel addition is made on Pesach or Shavuot? One can imagine a similar line for Pesach, for example, asking the Merciful One to redeem us speedily or something of that nature, but it is in fact only on Sukkot that a line particular to the holiday is added near the end of Birkat Hamazon. 2) If a line is to be added for Sukkot, why connect Sukkot with the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash? Is this a common motif, a common theme of Sukkot? Of course we always hope for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, and the Mussaf Tefillot of every holiday drive home this desire, but it does not seem to be a wish that is relevant to Sukkot in particular. 3) In this brief Tefillah, the Beit Hamikdash is referred to as a “sukkah.” This is certainly convenient given the holiday that we are celebrating, but it still needs to be true in order to be a part of the Tefillot. I am not aware of anywhere in Tanach or elsewhere in the Tefillot that the Beit Hamikdash is referred to as a sukkah. Why is this comparison being made? How is the Beit Hamikdash similar to a sukkah?

Let’s begin with the final question, and in so doing let us consider a paradox in the mitzvah of sukkah. On the one hand, the sukkah is meant to remind us of Hashem’s protection of our ancestors in the Wilderness and of us as well. Yet if this were the intended symbolism of the sukkah, it would make more sense to build it in a way that we do not feel so acutely the forces of his occasional apparent displeasure with us – driving rain, harsh wind, buzzing bees. And yet the sukkah is deliberately built in a way in which we do feel these forces and are affected by them, which may occasionally make us wonder, while we are escaping to our warmer or drier home, whether Hashem indeed does care about us, love us, or protect us at all.

This presents a philosophical challenge for us, but one that we can overcome by remembering that Hashem’s love for us is not only evident at the times that He appears most to express that love. Mishna Megillah 4:9 teaches that one who expresses a belief that Hashem is only present at the times in which good things seem to be happening should be silenced (ועל טוב יזכר שמך, משתקין אותו). One could similarly but wrongly feel Hashem’s protection only when the weather in the sukkah is nice and the bees are in abeyance, but this would be the wrong belief – משתקין אותו, we would silence such a person as well.

In this sense, our sukkah and the Beit Hamikdash have something important in common. When the Beit Hamikdash was standing, with all of its concomitant miracles and wonders, one could not help but feel Hashem’s protection, much as one sitting in the sukkah in nice weather cannot help but feel the warmth of Hashem’s radiant glow upon him. But when the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the smoke no longer rising straight up to Heaven and the lechem hapanim no longer staying fresh from week to week, we entered a long period of national confusion about whether Hashem truly still loved us or cared about us. The nations surrounding us were only too happy to seize upon this insecurity and craft ideologies built to exploit the lack of comfort felt by the wandering, Temple-less Jew. But history has shown that this belief was wrong from its inception. Hashem loved us when we had the Beit Hamikdash, He loved us after its destruction, and He loves us in the period of partial renewal we have experienced over the past 70 years.

The prayer that Hashem “raise up for us the fallen sukkah of Dovid” was written at a time before this renewal, when it was of particular urgency to remind ourselves and our brethren that despite our being prone to feel insecure as national wanderers without a central home, we are as much Hashem’s children today as we were when we had the Beit Hamikdash. Like our own sukkah that we may occasionally escape even while we know that Hashem’s love for us is still real, we should feel that way about the “sukkah of Dovid” which, despite having fallen, does not represent evidence of Hashem’s abandonment of His people. The brief prayer in Birkat Hamazon is a call to remember that our national confusion over Hashem’s apparent abstentia is no more valid than the feeling of abandonment we might feel as we sit in our unprotected sukkah or run away from it with hands over our heads.

To return to our first two questions, which we have really already answered: Sukkot, more than any other holiday, is programmed to allow us to feel comfort despite the loss of the Beit Hamikdash, and it may be for this reason that a line is added to Birkat Hamazon specifically on Sukkot. And because the sukkah affords us the protection of knowing that Hashem loves us even when that love is not evident, we compare the Beit Hamikdash to a sukkah in this brief Tefillah. All in all, in this Tefillah we are invited to remember that Hashem’s love for us, whether in the historical sense of the Beit Hamikdash or in the localized sense of our own sukkah, is universal, eternal, and non-negotiable. May we merit to feel this way throughout Sukkot, throughout the year, and until our long national exile reaches its conclusion with the rebuilding of the third and final Beit Hamikdash and Hashem’s love and protection are felt in abundance once more.

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