The Book of Jonah is the story of the soul and its missions, trials, tribulations and journeys in this world, according to the Vilna Gaon. So what does it have to do with Sukkot? There’s a verse in the Book of Jonah, where he leaves the city, separates himself from the materialism of this world, and “he built for himself a sukkah”. This is highly significant, the Vilna Gaon explains, as the sukkah represents G-d’s very presence, and shades us from the materialism and harshness of this world, represented by the sun.
A unique perspective of the Book of Jonah – Sefer Yonah – is found in the commentary of the Vilna Gaon, who explains it as a story of the journey of the soul. He says that Jonah is not one specific person, but rather Yonah, which means ‘dove’ in Hebrew, represents the soul which is sent into this world on a mission to be able to do as much good as possible – and to grow, develop and accumulate mitzvot and good deeds. But sometimes a person tries to run away from their mission, as is evident in the Book of Jonah, which opens up with a discussion of how Jonah tries to run away from G-d. In fact, the entire Book of Jonah, according to the Vilna Gaon, is a story of the soul and its trials and tribulations and journeys in this world.
At the beginning of the book (chapter 1 verse 3) it says: “And Yonah (the dove, the soul) arises to run away from Hashem… and he goes down to Yafo.” This is normally translated as the city of Jaffa, but the Vilna Gaon says that in this context, Yafo comes from the Hebrew word yafeh, meaning “beauty”. So the soul is running away to be immersed in the materialism of this world – in its physical beauty.
You may be wondering what this has to do with Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, because we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. There it has a very specific purpose, as Yom Kippur is all about our repentance and our spiritual journey and our accountability, so it’s understandable that the Book of Jonah is deeply connected to the experience of Yom Kippur, and especially from the Vilna Gaon’s perspective of it. But there is a verse in the Book of Jonah which refers to a sukkah, and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on this verse – when Jonah actually builds a sukkah – is a key insight into what this mitzvah of sukkah is all about.
We are now coming to the end of the festival of Sukkot and we are about to begin Shemini Atzeret, which, according to the Talmud, is considered a festival in its own right, yet its purpose is to be an ingathering of all the lessons from the past few weeks. In fact, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the word atzeret, although spelt with an ein, is related to the word otzar, with an aleph, which means a ‘treasury’. So it’s a time of gathering in the treasures and the lessons of Sukkot and this entire period, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
As we ready ourselves to enter these last two days of yom tov, we need to think about all that we have learnt, and there’s a significant verse in the Book of Jonah that tells us about this. In chapter 4, Jonah is grappling with suffering because, remember, this is the story of the journey of the soul in this world, and one of the most challenging things that human beings endure is the challenge of suffering and difficulty. When we encounter difficulty, it raises all kinds of theological questions, which the Talmud says Moses asked G-d about on Mount Sinai. He said: “Why is it that sometimes there are righteous people who suffer and wicked people who prosper?” Suffering is not only difficult from a philosophical point of view, but also from an emotional point of view.
“And Jonah leaves the city.” (chapter 4, verse 5) According to the Vilna Gaon, Yonah – the soul – separates himself from the materialism and the physicality of this world. And it says: “And he dwells to the east of the city.” The word kedem doesn’t only mean “east”, it also means “from before, from the earliest time”, meaning he dwells and he is involved in Torah wisdom, because the Torah was created before this world. And “he built for himself a sukkah… and he dwelt in the shade of the sukkah”. This is highly significant, the Vilna Gaon explains, as the sukkah represents a shelter from the materialism and harshness of this world, represented by the sun.
Here we have an insight into understanding what the sukkah represents, and it helps us reflect on these days that we have just been through, and then to think about the treasures and the ideas and the wisdoms that we can gather in, as we head towards Shemini Atzeret. The Vilna Gaon says that the concept of shade is so crucial to understanding the sukkah, because what is the definition of a sukkah? The word sukkah comes from the word schach – “roof”. It’s the covering that we sit under, and the minimum requirement has to be that it is made from branches that are cut from the ground, and the minimum requirement of a kosher sukkah is, according to the mishna, that its “shade is greater than the sun”.
What does the sun represent? The Vilna Gaon says that the sun represents the physical world. It’s a very powerful force. Our world is dominated by the sun, which provides light and energy – everything for this physical world to survive and to thrive. But the sun can also be oppressive and harsh, and so there are times we need to be shaded from it on a physical level. The Vilna Gaon says that this is spiritual and symbolic too, because what it really means is that this world can be a harsh and unforgiving place, and we need to be shielded and sheltered from the heat of the sun’s rays and from its presence, which can be oppressive if we are not shielded from it.
So what does the sukkah represent? The shade of the sukkah represents G-d’s presence. We find this concept in the Book of Psalms, where it says that we “dwell in the shadow of Hashem”. We take shelter in the shade of Hashem’s presence. We know that He is looking after us, and that no matter what happens, we are in His loving embrace and He has a plan for our own good. If we’re out there in the physical world and we don’t have a connection to Hashem, we don’t have faith in Hashem and we don’t have a relationship with Hashem, then we’re on our own. Then, we face the harshness of the elements of this world without the sense of comfort and connection that a deep relationship with Hashem brings us. The sukkah represents that relationship with Hashem.
It also represents our Torah and mitzvot, our meaning and purpose in this life. That’s what the whole Book of Jonah is about – that our souls were sent to this world in order to fulfil a mission from Hashem – even when the world can be harsh and unforgiving, as we have all experienced first-hand through this global pandemic we are enduring at the moment.
We need our faith in and connection to Hashem to find comfort and a sense of security in this world, but we need it for even more than this. In order to thrive and manage in this world, we need our faith in and connection to Hashem to give us a sense of meaning and purpose because, as human beings, we can overcome any challenge, rise to any occasion and overcome any difficulty if we can see the meaning and the purpose behind it. If we can find the meaning and the purpose in life, then we’ll be able to thrive and be inspired no matter what the circumstances are around us. Our Torah and our mitzvot, Hashem’s commandments to us – the mission of the soul to accumulate good deeds and mitzvot in this world – fills everything we do with meaning and purpose. That is the shade that allows us to live in this world with a sense of inner peace and tranquillity, and with a sense of purpose and meaning, and ultimately, inspiration. That is what Jonah was seeking out. Yonah, meaning the soul, was seeking out the shade of G-d’s presence and the shade of the meaning of a life filled with good deeds.
What is also so significant is that the sukkah has the sun’s rays coming through it. It’s not just the shade – it’s a combination of shade and sun. G-d doesn’t teach us to cut ourselves off from the physical world – the Torah is always about an integration of the physical and the spiritual. Everything we do – eating, sleeping and all of the different dimensions of human existence – is integrated into our service of G-d. And our work in this world – earning a living, our relationships, our family – becomes enveloped in meaning. We don’t separate ourselves from the physical world. That’s why the defining essence of the sukkah is that the shade is more than the sun – the sun represents the physical, material world and the shade represents the meaning, purpose and spirituality. There must be more shade than sun, but it doesn’t mean that the sun must be cut out. As long as there is more shade than sun, then the sun will help us to fulfil our mission in this world. It’s about finding the right balance – and when we make sure that the dominant force in our lives is our sense of mission and purpose and our connection to Hashem, then that allows us to embrace and celebrate this physical world and to find true inner joy – simcha – which is what this festival is all about. Zeman simchateinu – the time of our joy and our celebration and rejoicing.
That becomes part of our message for the sukkah. As we think back on these days of Sukkot, living in the sukkah, what we are really thinking about is that when we are in the sukkah, we are living under the protective shade of Hashem and we are living under the protective shade of the meaning and purpose of His mitzvot and His will and the powerful mission that we have been sent on – Yonah – that our souls have been sent into this world to do. This fills us with joy, which is what this festival is all about. And as we approach Shemini Atzeret, we look back on the week of Sukkot and we take these lessons with us.
So, as we go into Shemini Atzeret, let’s gather in these treasures – understanding the meaning of the sukkah – which also helps us to then reflect on the whole journey that we have been through over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed by Sukkot. The Book of Jonah reflects the journey of our lives – of our souls as we go through this world, encountering all of the challenges and opportunities to fulfil our mission, and then guidance on our true path and what lies ahead of us.
These are the crucial lessons and treasures that we take with us from these last few weeks of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot as we go into Shemini Atzeret. And we should gather them all in, contemplate what we have been through over this time, and take that inspiration, wisdom and insight with us into the new year so that it will indeed be a year filled with blessing for us all.