The Duke of Manheim once asked Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Levin, ‘The Rav of Berlin’ the reason that children ask the ‘Four Questions’ on Passover and not Sukkot? “After all, on Sukkot you have more customs than on Passover, since you leave your homes and live in temporary booths!” The Rabbi replied, “On Passover, a child sees the family seated around a table with many tempting dishes, and they are freely relaxed in a way we Jews are not always permitted to enjoy. Therefore the child is surprised and asks the questions. But what does the little one see on Sukkot? The people of Israel leave their homes and sit in the outdoors without a roof over them. This is no surprise for even a child knows this is the way of Jews in the exile.”
The wanderings of Bnei Yisrael in the Sinai wilderness commemorated by the Sukkah can be seen as a microcosm of the future travels of Jews in the Diaspora throughout history. The Torah states, “These are the journeys of the Israelites who had left Egypt in organized groups.” (Numbers 33:1) The Israelites traveled to forty-two different locations en route to their final destination, the Land of Israel. Each place is specifically mentioned, and each presented its own specific challenges to Bnei Yisrael. That experience was instrumental in strengthening their identity as a Torah Nation.
As their ancestors in the Sinai wilderness, Jews throughout history have been in frequent transit as a result of many expulsions and flight from persecution. Jewish communities have been subject to hundreds of expulsions. In the twentieth century alone, millions of Jews fled pogroms and discrimination in Eastern Europe, the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany, and persecution in Arab countries.
Yet, according to Rashi, Bnei Yisrael was encamped in one place-Kadesh Barnea for nineteen years. (Devarim 1:46) Similarly, throughout history, there were times when an abode for the Jews had lasted for an extended duration, and sometimes in relative comfort within a tolerant atmosphere. And as with the Israelites in Kadesh Barnea, who were destined to eventually move onwards, they too would most often be forced to continue their journeys with the emergence in their times of forces of hatred and intolerance.
In today’s times, Jewish communities in the Diaspora are again imperiled and many Jews are again in flight. Antisemitism, which was once deemed under control in post World War II Europe, has proliferated and now threatens Jewish communities throughout Europe. In America, Jews have been increasingly targeted in anti-Semitic attacks. On American college campuses, bigoted anti-Israel venom has become commonplace on many college campuses. However, unlike the past millennia, the modern State of Israel awaits every Jew’s arrival whether in flight by force, or by one’s own volition.
The Sukkah with its flimsy walls and open roof is an embodiment of Jewish existence in the Diaspora, which as the Sukkah itself is temporary, part of a larger journey which inevitably leads to the Land of Israel.