Finding shelter in wilderness


Over my life I have made 16 moves for an average of a move every four years.  The longest that I have ever lived in one house is eleven years, and the longest that I have ever resided in one city was 14.  The shortest residence I ever had was eight weeks.  As I reflect upon the meaning of Sukkot and my own peripatetic life, I am reminded of the quotation from the book, “Exodus and Revolution” by Michael Walzer:

— first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; 

— second, that there is a better, place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

— and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.


Though the Festival of Booths, Sukkot, has its origins in an autumnal harvest holiday in antiquity, its meaning for us today is tied to the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the stops along the way, the events that shaped the ragtag group of slaves into a people whose destiny seems to be in continuing to journey, always seeking the Promised Land.  The nomadic roots of the Jewish people continue to stand us in good stead over the history of our people and in our own personal journeys.

The Torah teaches that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, making many stops along the way.  At some of these stops occurred momentous events, such as the one at Horeb at which the people experienced God through the Revelation of the Torah. At that same stop, they also committed the biggest sin in the construction of the Golden Calf as a substitute for Moses and God. In between these high and low points were other experiences:  the quest for water, the quest for food, the anxieties of a people still unsure of themselves and still uncertain as to whether or not they could trust God or Moses to deliver on their promises.  The journey was long and difficult, spanning at least two generations and many miles.

Our personal journeys are not all that different. We come out of that narrow place (the Hebrew word for Egypt comes from a root meaning “narrow”) into a huge world. It takes years for us to become the people we are destined to be, and much of that formation process includes education, general, religious and social. Even in the rare instance where one resides in the same house for one’s entire lifetime, there is still movement, still wandering, still growth. Most of us, however, do make moves, whether it is to different neighborhoods, different cities, different states or different countries. Each move provides its own unique experiences and become part of the memories that one carries of one’s life journey.  Each move is another attempt to find that promised land, that better, more attractive, more profitable, happier place. Each move, we pray, brings us closer to our goal.

Sukkot celebrates not only the journey but the stops along the way.  At each stop along the way, the first concern has to be for shelter and protection from the elements. As we build and decorate our Sukkot each year, we relive, as it were, this first concern. Precisely when the temperatures are turning cooler, especially at night, and the chances of rain increase, we leave the comfort of our permanent residences (at least for the time being) and re-enact the uncertainty and the anxiety of living on the road in a temporary structure that magnifies these uncertainties and anxieties. With each move that we make during our life journeys, we experience these same emotions. We are elated that perhaps this move (whether it is to a new school, a new house, a new city, a new job, a new stage of life) will be the one to end all moves, that we will have reached our goal, the promised land of life.  We are also anxious about what awaits us in that new place, in that new future; uncertain whether or not we will be able to find what it is that we are seeking. 

Our ancestors’ experiences aid us in making our own journeys.  The sukkah reminds us that our ancestors made the journey one step at a time, one stop at a time, one experience at a time.  The sukkah reminds us that in each stop along the way the people found shelter, protection from the elements. They also experienced the Sheltering Presence of something quite a bit larger than themselves that protected them along the way. As we reflect on our own journeys, at each age, at each stage, at each place, we can experience that Sheltering Presence, sometimes very imminent and sometimes very transcendent. Life is, indeed, a journey:  Sometimes it takes one to new neighborhoods, new cities, new states, new countries, as it has me, but it always takes us towards a destination as yet to be determined, a promised land.  Sukkot celebrates the journey, the ages, the stages, the places, the people that come in and out of our lives. It reminds us that each stop along the way is a temporary one that is filled with experiences and opportunities to learn and to grow.  It reminds us that we may have come from Egypt and that there may be a promised land ahead, but the journey is life itself even with all of its uncertainty and anxiety, and it is best made with others alongside us.

Chag Same’ach!