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Lulav and Sukkah- Reaching Up and Reaching Down

10/17/2019 01:51:31 PM


Sukkot is distinctive among Jewish holidays in that it has two primary practices that are quite different from each other: the lulav and the sukkah. The differences between them can teach us something important about our own spiritual experience.

The lulav and the sukkah diverge in almost every dimension. The lulav set must be made from four specific species, and there are dozens of imperfections that render it invalid, whereas the sukkah can be made of any plant material, and is quite literally pass/fail - we just need 51% shade. The sukkah is observed day and night, even on Shabbat, but only when the weather cooperates, whereas the lulav must be taken during daylight hours, and is not used on Shabbat. The lulav is blessed only once a day, whereas one may say a blessing over the sukkah each time one eats inside. They even differ in terms of ownership requirements. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav at the highest level, one must have full ownership of it. The lulav cannot be borrowed. In contrast, one may fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah dwelling in anyone’s booth, even without permission.

The many differences between these two rituals make more sense when we consider their meaning in Jewish mysticism. Our spiritual lives consist of times that we reach up to God, and times that God reaches down to us. As we wave the lulav in all directions, we are trying to reach out to God - the precision and form of the ritual are necessary for success. It must be at the right time, and it must be our own lulav, because we cannot reach up unless we are in the right spiritual place, and we cannot reach out with someone else’s plea. 

In contrast, the sukkah represents the way that God reaches down to us to offer protection. When God reaches down to us, even an imperfect structure like the sukkah is able to reflect that experience, and it is available to us at any time. It does not even have to be our own sukkah, because God’s presence can be felt from many directions, some of them unexpected.

When we use the lulav in the sukkah, we are bringing these two modes of spirituality together - we seek to reach out to God in exactly the place where God tries to shelter us. As we celebrate this Sukkot, we can think about the ways that we reach out to God, and the ways that God reaches out to us, not just in our ritual lives, but in our emotional and spiritual experiences of the world.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784