The wrong sukkah

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

It's already a week past Yom Kippur and I'm still thinking about the Book of Jonah, which we read on the afternoon of the holy day. 

God tells Jonah to go up to Nineveh and declare its impending doom; instead Jonah goes down to Jaffa and finds a ship headed in the opposite direction. God deals with him, but also shows him great mercy, and Jonah finally does what he’s told; he warns the Ninevites, and they repent en masse. The Yom Kippur themes are all in play—repentance, God’s sovereignty over the nations as well as Israel, and his boundless mercy over all. Toward the end of the story there’s also a subtle connection with Sukkot: “Jonah left the city of Nineveh and found a place east of the city, where he made himself a sukkah and sat down under it, in its shade, to see what would happen to the city” (4:5).

There’s a sukkah in this story, but it’s the wrong kind of sukkah, which I’ll call the Sukkah of Wrath. Jonah’s a prophet, someone who’s supposed to represent God, and his response to Nineveh, even after it repents, is to camp out and wait for God’s wrath, which he fears won’t come. Now we know why Jonah didn’t want to warn the Ninevites in the first place. He knows how merciful God can be, because he needed a major dose of mercy himself, so he’s convinced that God is going to let the wicked city off the hook . . . and he just can’t stand it.

The problem is that we might imagine our sukkah to be like Jonah’s—like an escape hatch from a world that’s hopelessly lost and awaiting judgment. 

But the real sukkah isn’t an escape hatch. In its first appearance in Torah, Sukkot is called Hag ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering or Harvest (Ex. 34:22). Surrounded by the abundant harvest of the Promised Land, we’re to remember what God has done to bring us here: “I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God” (Lev. 23:43 CJB).

And so the sukkah is a simple hut—outwardly humble, even shabby—but our custom is to decorate it within, to make it glorious, so we can really dwell, and not just hang out, in it. It reminds me of Messiah, who comes among us in humility, unimpressive on the outside, but bearing within the glory of God. Likewise the sukkah of the harvest festival is glorified within to reflect the kingdom of God that is coming. It looks forward to what God will do, as well as back at what he had done. 

The prophet Zechariah says that at the end of the age the nations will surround Jerusalem to destroy her, and Hashem will descend upon the Mount of Olives to defeat the attackers and save the Holy City. And then, “Everyone remaining from all the nations that came to attack Jerusalem will go up every year to worship the king, Adonai-Tzva’ot, and to keep the festival of Sukkot” (Zech. 14:16). The festival of harvest in this age becomes the festival of harvest of all the nations in the age to come.

So, the right sukkah isn’t the Sukkah of Wrath, an escape hatch from a doomed world, but the Sukkah of Hope, an advance base of the Kingdom to come. The right sukkah shows that God isn’t going to abandon this world, but redeem it. It pictures God’s mission in the world, which isn’t to get us out of here, and safely tucked away in heaven, but to reunite heaven and earth, and us along with them, in the renewed creation.  

Now, I started with the title “The Wrong Sukkah,” but that’s totally negative. We should focus instead on the right sukkah, the Sukkah of Hope. So, here’s a new title: “Are you sitting in the right sukkah?”

The Lord poses the same question from a different angle to Jonah, who is still sitting in his sukkah. Hashem provides a quick-growing vine to cover the sukkah and shade Jonah from the blazing sun, and then he provides a worm to kill the vine, and a scorching east wind to blast down on Jonah’s head. The prophet, who was probably just beginning to calm down after seeing the evil Ninevites repent, gets upset all over again and says for the second time, “I’d be better off dead!” (4:3, 8). The Lord responds with a question that ends the whole book: “You’re concerned over this vine, which cost you no effort; you didn’t make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn’t I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left — not to mention all the animals?”

It’s a great ending, because it really leaves the ending up to Jonah, and up to us as well. Are we going to sit in the escape hatch, the Sukkah of Wrath, or in the Sukkah of Hope?

Consider the logic here. Jonah cares about the vine because it has provided comfort to him. And the Lord says, “shouldn’t I care about Nineveh?” Apparently, just as Jonah got some comfort from the vine, Hashem derives comfort from humankind, even from wicked humans who are so lost they don’t even know their right hand from their left.

Jonah reminds me of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the brother who is uptight because his sinning, unruly little brother has come home and gotten totally forgiven and restored. Like Jonah, the older brother is holed up in the Sukkah of Wrath. Yeshua tells this story because some of his religious opponents criticize him for hanging out with sinners. So he tells them that he’s like a shepherd who has 100 sheep and discovers that one has gone astray. He goes after the one lost sheep and rejoices when it’s found. He’s like a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one. She drops everything else and searches for that coin until she finds it. And then the punch line: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

The religious folk who argue with Yeshua probably figure that if you’re righteous, you’re going to get away from sinners as fast as Jonah got out of Nineveh. That idea is still popular today, but Yeshua teaches that salvation isn’t just about escaping the judgment that is hanging over this world—and don’t get me wrong, there is a reality of God’s wrath and Messiah Yeshua is the way of escape—but salvation is far bigger than that. The Sukkah of Hope isn’t an escape hatch, it’s an advance camp of the age to come, which has already broken into this age. In it we abandon any judgmental, get-me-outa-here approach to the world, and get ready to serve and prepare the way for the kingdom to come.

These stories make another point. God values people and counts each one as precious, even people who think he doesn’t exist, like the atheist who lives down the street, or people who might think God exists, but live like they wish he didn’t, like the latest high-profile adulterer to show up on the evening news, or the thief who broke in and stole your TV to pawn it for drug money. We’re to share not only God’s compassion for such folks, but also his desire to gather them in as something precious, to harvest the bounty that belongs to him.

So, as we continue our celebration of Sukkot, let’s be sure we’re sitting in the Sukkah of Hope, looking forward to the age to come, and ready to go out and serve it in this age.  

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