According to the text of Leviticus 23:43, the commandment to dwell in sukkot (booths/shelters) is observed:
“In order that future generations will know that I made the children of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
In the Exodus narrative itself, these booths are not mentioned. This gave rise to a Talmudic dispute in which R.Akiva’s claim (that the festival of Sukkoth refers to physical booths built in the desert) is contested by R. Eliezar, who suggests that the shelter referred to is none other than that of the “annanei kavod”…the Divine clouds of The Glory which protected Israel in the desert. (Midrash Sifra 17, Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 11b).
In the spirit of “eilu v’eilu", both opinions are correct.
The hut (sukkah) which is built during the festival of Sukkot is a reminder of our reliance on Divine Providence and Protection. For some the emphasis is on the idea that it is we ourselves who build it-literally by our labour and creativity and figuratively by our attempt to live according to the Torah. For others it is a reminder that ultimately we are totally reliant on the Protection of God, and that He will be gracious to whomsoever He chooses. Both ideas are part of the liturgy of this festival.
In those years when I was less halachically observant, I chose to make the canopy of the clouds and stars my symbolic sukkah… I stood outside in my tiny walled garden, “built” a sukkah by intention, and looked up to the heavens with a cup of wine in my hand and with reliance on God in my heart. Over the years I became more observant, and now build a "physical" sukkah regularly. Here's the almost finished sukkah I built (with HaShem's help) this afternoon.
Though the nature and symbolism of the Shelter/shelter under which we celebrate generated much creative argument - one opinion on the festival of Sukkot which was always universally agreed upon is that Sukkot is the "Season of our Joy".
This year (5772/2011) I was fortunate enough to have (literally) stumbled upon an outstanding new video which reflects Sukkot joy perfectly. It is both informative and beautifully made....and shines from within with positive faith. It was made by Ryan Lifchitz and features the enheartening optimism of Yaakov Lehman. I am posting it here as a way of sharing in their mitzvah and helping to spread its happy message.
Chag Sukkot Sameach!
(The photo at the top of this item was taken near my home in Granada Costa, Spain in December 2008)