At the height of World War II Norman Rockwell produced his famous and now largely ignored series of paintings – The Four Freedoms. Remember them? They summarized the human condition. We humans need freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from fear. “Shelter” is one of the “wants” and shelter is good and is something that we can provide for ourselves.
At this High Holy Day season following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the ancient observances of Succoth culminating in Simhat Torah which marks receiving of the gift of the words of God in the Torah. Succoth means celebrating freedom to create a shelter in which you can see the stars above and is not meant to keep out rain, snow or hurricanes and tornados. Yet, while Jews perform this highly symbolic act they question its origin yet, do it anyway. That is the reason so many nice habitations have these flimsy huts erected outside on their property.
Actually, the very act of being allowed to erect these flimsy “shelters” shows defiance against the very vagaries of nature. It is a metaphor for freedom because these succahs were not meant to be lived in. The stories of old tell that some shelter was needed by the refugees who fled Egyptian slavery and wandered in the desert until the time was right for them to accept the gift of the land called holy, the narrow strip of land along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, then occupied by various peoples among them the Philistines who gave their name to the area and a place in history. The Jews who lived for a short period in rickety huts with great holes in the roofs are still here but where are the Philistines?
The metaphor is a good one. One story is that God provided a cloud that covered the wanderers and they did not need any other kind of shelter. Wise men gave this some thought and, after reading the text of the Bible, said this would not be enough. Thank you God for the offer but it was better that these Hebrews learn how to build - albeit these “huts”, “booths” or just a few symbolic sticks to follow the injunction to observe this holy day. I like this story best. It is in the tradition of if you give a person a fish to eat he will eventually starve for he becomes dependent. If you teach him how to fish he can provide for himself. I like that. It is like what I learned in the Boy Scouts.
I know how to put up a shelter and how to make a fire and do the other stuff to get along in the wilderness. The symbols of this Holy Period were born out of necessity and sharpened by use over millennia. We have ignored the do-it-yourself commands to our peril. Too many people are waiting for handouts. Most do not even see the symbolic use of a temporary shelter from which you can see the stars.