The Sukka: From Cradle to Grave 

Marc Eichenbaum Tradition Online | October 6, 2022

As hard as I have tried to remember the exact moment when I fell in love with God, I cannot do it. My earliest memories are bathed in a kind of golden light that seemed to embrace me as surely as my mother’s arms. The divine presence was strongest outdoors, and most palpable when I was alone. — Barbara Brown Taylor

Some of my fondest memories involve sitting in the shade of the Sukka. My face hit with the warm rays of the sun trickling through the skhakh, enjoying the peaceful breezy autumn weather. There is something about those moments, experienced as a respite of sorts after the intensity of the high holidays, that feels so sweetly serene and calming. Although the Sukka is outside our houses and in a materially vulnerable hut, in some ways the Sukka feels more like home, more inviting and nourishing than our strong structures of brick and mortar. 

Yet the exact goal of the mitzva of Sukka remains so elusive. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sukka 11b) debated the reasoning behind this ritual: Rabbi Eliezer thought that the Sukka is meant to remind us of the miraculous Clouds of Glory that protected the Israelites in the desert while Rabbi Akiva argued it is meant to represent the actual physical booths that the Israelites dwelled in the desert. These views explain the rationale behind the idea of the Sukka, but what remains a mystery is what we should actually do inside of it. Peculiarly, there is no designated ritual performed in the Sukka. All we are meant to do is eat, sleep, and “teshvu k’ein taduru” dwell as we would in our homes (Sukka 28b). In a way, the mitzva of Sukka seems to be less about doing and more about being. Many explanations have been offered to explain the nature and goal of this being. But it’s worth considering how insights drawn from developmental psychology can help us uncover the mystery of being in the Sukka. 

After World War II, the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) studied child development by observing orphans. He noticed a phenomenon that all the theories of child development at the time could not explain. Namely, even children who were given adequate medical care, nourishing food, and shelter were not thriving. Some even died. In trying to explain why some children flourished while others given virtually the same circumstances perished, Bowlby eventually developed his groundbreaking theory of attachment. Based on ideas from evolutionary biology, ethology, and social psychology, attachment theory proposes that because human beings are born helpless, they are “programmed” to search for and to attach to a caregiver, usually the mother, for survival. Crucially, the nature of the relationship between caregiver and infant makes all the difference in the world. In accordance with how the caregiver provides the infant’s physical and emotional needs, the infant will learn whether to rely on and feel safe with the caregiver. The infant-caregiver relationship, in turn, shapes the infant’s brain and instills within it an implicit set of beliefs and expectancies about future relationships as well. Whether they be romantic partners, friendships, or even coworkers, these relationships are greatly colored by our earliest interactions with our caregivers. According to Bowlby, the way in which we “attach” to our primary caregivers, largely as a result of their interactions with us, becomes a lens through which we see the world “from the cradle to the grave.”

Mary Ainsworth, one of Bowlby’s closest students, further advanced attachment theory by conducting a famous but controversial experiment called the Strange Situation Procedure. In it, Ainsworth exposed infants to a series of incrementally stressful situations in which the child’s mother would leave, be replaced by a stranger, and then ultimately return. Based on the infant’s behavior and reaction to both the absence and presence of its mother, Ainsworth proposed several distinct primary styles in which infants attach to their primary caregiver and, in turn, learn to see the world. Infants who have a consistent and competent caregiver generally develop a secure attachment style. These people are typically comfortable with intimacy and being dependent on others. They typically feel worthy of being loved, are tolerant and accepting of others, and show more resilience during difficult times. Those who aren’t fortunate to develop a secure attachment, go on to develop an insecure attachment. There are several types of insecure attachment styles. Infants who were not responded to consistently generally develop an avoidant attachment and often become people who are reluctant to engage in intimacy and dependence on others, seemingly internalizing their caregiver’s implicit messaging to be self-reliant and wary of others’ trust. If a caregiver provides inconsistent care and attention to their child, the result is often a person who is wary and vigilant to potential threats in relationships. Later researchers proposed when an infant develops both anxious and avoidant attachment styles, their attachment style is considered disorganized, indicating someone who is fearful of rejection and anxious of relationships. Importantly, one’s attachment style does not necessarily remain set in stone. By learning to develop healthy relationships, making important environmental changes, and engaging in therapy, a person can develop a secure attachment style. 

Fascinatingly, several researchers have proposed that even God can be considered an attachment figure. Similar to an attachment style with a caregiver, one’s relationship with God can be considered secure or insecure. This means that one’s relationship with God may be a reflection of his or her primary attachment style established in childhood or, as some propose, a primary attachment figure which colors other relationships in life. In fact, researchers lay out five criteria of what is considered an attachment relationship, and, for most people, their relationship with God fulfills all five: A secure base—a figure who is watches over us and provides for us our needs; a safe haven—a source of comfort and reassurance in the face of frightening events; proximity seeking—behaviors that seek to restore closeness when the infant is separated from the attachment figure; separation—the threat of separation from the caregiver causes protest; loss—the loss of the attachment figure causes grief. These five criteria, it can be argued, occur psychologically and spiritually in one’s relationship with God. For many, God is a source of comfort and protection. A secure base and safe haven for life’s travails. For others, their relationship with God is strained and can be considered anxious, avoidant, or disorganized. It stands to reason that just as one can reestablish their attachment style in their relationships to people, one can also transform an insecure attachment style to God to a secure one. 

Perhaps establishing a secure attachment style is the goal of the Sukka. When God redeemed us from Egypt we were born spiritually as a nation. We were “naked and bare” (Ezek. 16:7), as helpless infants searching for protection and nourishment. Like a mother protecting and supplying emotional warmth to her infant, God “encircled them, He granted them discernment, He protected them like the pupil of His eye” (Deut. 32:10). The manna provided the nourishment and the Sukka, both the Clouds of Glory and the physical booths, protected from the elements of the desert. As a fledgling nation, the Sukka served as our secure base and safe haven, in order to establish a secure attachment style with God. 

While our modern-day Sukkot recall the secure attachment that they fostered in the desert, I believe they are also meant to help us establish a secure attachment with God in the present. Rosh HaShana, the birthday of Adam and Eve, is also the beginning of our own spiritual births. During this time and throughout the Ten Days of Repentance we examine our behavior and character traits, we say goodbye to our old selves, and work towards lasting change. To echo Maimonidies, through teshuva we become different people (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:5). The culmination of this birthing process occurs on Yom Kippur, when we are granted full forgiveness, and receive a clean slate. Through teshuva we are reborn. And, just as an infant establishes its attachment style upon birth, our goal during this period is to reestablish our relationship with God. Throughout the year we may have become estranged and distanced from Him, but we have the opportunity to mend our relationship and establish a secure attachment style. Just as in human relationships, we are not doomed to our previous style. We can change. 

Shortly after our spiritual birth on Yom Kippur, then, we enter into the Sukka and are surrounded by a heavenly but homey protection. The mystics teach us that the minimum size of a Sukka, two walls and a handbreadth, is meant to resemble the upper arm, forearm, and hand used for a hug.1 In the Sukka, we are meant to feel that God is giving us a divine embrace, perhaps a cradle, just as a mother lovingly cradles her baby in her arms. And as for what we are supposed to do inside the Sukka, those things- eating and sleeping- bare an unmistakable resemblance to the behavior of babies when they are properly provided for by their caregiver. On Sukkot we are nourished, protected, and embraced by God. We enjoy the blissful peace of God as our secure base and safe haven. We may have strayed away, but now are back and held tightly in God’s loving cradle.

Rabbi Marc Eichenbaum is a doctoral student at the Ferkauf School of Psychology and a member of the Sacks Graduate Fellowship for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. 


  1. Pri Etz Hayyim, Sha’ar Hhag HaSukkot, chap. 4. Likkutei Torah Derushim LeSukkot, pp. 78-79; 82d; 84a-b; 87a. Cf. Ohr HaTorah Derushim LeSukkot, pp. 1762-1763.

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