The Talmud relates a disagreement about the nature of the sukkot in which the children of Israel dwelt during their time in the desert. One position holds that the sukkot in the desert were “sukkot mamash,” real booths like the ones we put up today. The other holds that they were metaphorical sukkot, and really the sukkot we erect today are symbols for the “ananei hakavod,” the clouds of the divine presence that accompanied the Israelites on their journey.
Sukkot is a holiday of symbols: The sukkah and lulav & etrog invite interpretation. And indeed, each of these symbols has a long and rich history of interpretation, from representing various kinds of people (in the four species of palm, willow, myrtle and citron) to symbolizing the openness and welcoming tent that our community is meant to be (in the sukkah). In this sense, the sukkot of the ancient Israelites seems more like the clouds of God’s presence–they weren’t real sukkot, but rather signal a different dimension of existence.
Yet the sukkah, lulav and etrog are tangible, they are real. As these pictures attest, when we build a sukkah we’re not building a metaphor. We rely on math and geometry, planning and measuring, and ultimately execution, to erect a structure. The lulav really is green and pointy, and the etrog really is yellow and fragrant. These things do not exist as ideas in our mind; they exist in the real world. So in this sense, it makes more sense to say that the sukkot of the ancient Israelites were sukkot mamash, real sukkot.
Which is it? Like many good Jewish questions, the answer is “both.” The sukkah and the lulav and etrog are definitely real, but they are also symbols. Or, to reverse it, they are symbols, but they are also real.
Yet we should embrace the beauty of this paradox. That is the message of Sukkot. After the sense-denying day of Yom Kippur, Sukkot thrusts us back out into the world of physical existence and reminds us that our lives in this world are works of beauty. We are here for a purpose, and that purpose is to embrace and elevate the things of the world, and to do so in a way that validates and includes the many different types of creations and people in the world.
And at the end of Sukkot, we leave the sukkah behind and celebrate Simchat Torah–the real letters and words of the texts of our people. Those words have a physical reality, but they become symbols as well. And through their symbolism, they guide our real lives. We thus live in a constant dialogue between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be. That is the space in which Jewish life happens. We build the sukkah, we live in it, we learn in it, and then we take its message with us into a year of learning and study, a year of doing and action.