Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Permanent Simcha

Once again the wonderful Yom Tov of Sukkos, a time of special simcha, is here. Sukkos exerts an extraordinary pull on the entire family, drawing every one into the preparations and festivities.

The building of the sukkah itself is a rallying point, pulling every member of the family into the operation. Fathers and sons shlep the boards, panels and s’chach and try to figure out how to once again assemble those materials into a structure which can hold up for a week.

Mothers and daughters throw themselves into their culinary projects, going to special lengths to make sure everyone will be comfortable as they eat the delectable Yom Tov treats prepared with such love.

The younger children are occupied for days with coloring ushpizin charts and other works of art to beautify the sukkah. They plead with their older siblings to make room for their contributions on the walls where everyone can see them.

The sweet anticipation of hearing that first kiddush in the sukkah… enjoying the first seudah… and the excitement of shukeling the lulav and esrog in shul are only a few of the highlights of this wonderful Yom Tov.

Let us try to understand some of the underpinnings of this remarkable holiday that enchants old and young alike.

We are commanded to live in a sukkah for seven days to remember that Hashem fashioned sukkos for us when He took us out of bondage in Mitzrayim.

The minimum requirements of a sukkah are that it must be large enough to hold a table plus the head and majority of a person’s body. It is comprised of at least three walls able to withstand moderate winds, and topped by a leaky roof.

Perhaps the reason for the minimum size of the Sukkah is tied to the Gemorah in Chagigah [27a] which states that following the churban, our tables are analogous to the mizbeiach in the Beis Hamikdosh. Just as the mizbeiach was mechapeir for our sins in the times of the Mikdosh, so too in our times, the shulchan is mechapeir.

Though we left Mitzrayim in the spring and we celebrate Pesach during that period of the year, we commemorate Sukkos in the fall.

A Jew who has gone through the period of Rosh Hashanah, Aseres Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur, approaches life with a fresh perspective, purified of sin. He now understands that the table upon which he eats—a purely physical activity—can be elevated into a most spiritual act akin to the service in the Bais Hamikdosh.

He now knows that if his motive in eating is to acquire the strength to serve Hashem, learn Torah and participate in acts of chesed, then his table attains a level of holiness reminiscent of the mizbeiach.

Puncturing the Illusion of Permanence

He appreciates that a transient abode of three flimsy walls is all he needs to protect him from alien cultural and spiritual winds of the times. He leaves his “permanent” home and enters the “temporary” dwelling to remind him of what is really important and permanent in life.

For by then he will appreciate the truth that his “permanent” home is also temporary. He will know that everything physical is fleeting; to gain permanence a thing must be attached to - and used for – a spiritual purpose.

He knows that what the world regards as permanent and secure is merely an illusion. The lesson absorbed by living in a humble sukkah is that only Hashem affords a person protection, permanence and security.

A Jew sits in his primitive abode, looks up through the cracks in his s’chach roof to the stars and recognizes that G-d alone is in charge of all that transpires in his home and in his world.

The seforim refer to the s’chach as tzilah d’mheimnusah, the shade of G-d. The Jew who internalizes that concept while living in the sukkah is experiencing the most fundamental truth of life which he can then apply to his other home when the holiday ends.

Perhaps the reason the sukkah roof is porous is not only so that we can look up to the heavens, but also so that it is able to let rainwater through. If one sits in the sukkah and does not appreciate its message and does not behave properly, Hakadosh Boruch Hu, so to speak, pours water on him from up above.

In The Shadow Of The Infinite

The posuk describes Eretz Yisroel as the land over which Hakadosh Boruch Hu keeps constant vigil, and uses the rain [or the lack of it] to punish evildoers. In the sukkah, which is the tzilah d’mheimnusah, we feel this same dynamic at work.

One who appreciates that he is sitting in the shadow of the schechinah, in a building designed to protect him from the ruchos of the world; one who recognizes that this small hut is no less permanent than everything else in olam hazeh; one who appreciates that his table is his mizbeiach; truly has all he needs in this world.

The Medrash comments on the posuk “VaHashem beirach es Avrohom bakol,” that Avrohom Avinu had a sukkah. Perhaps because Avrohom Avinu understood the message of the sukkah he was blessed with kol, everything. He knew that all his possessions were temporary unless he used them to serve Hashem and to spread G-dliness in the world.

He had everything, kol, because he understood the difference between what is transient and what is permanent and dedicated his life to acquiring a share of the “permanent.” He thus truly had everything.

One who does not hear the call of the sukkah and complains that it is small, damp, cold, hot, uncomfortable and not like home, is termed a mitzta’eir.

Why is he called a mitzta’eir, literally a pained person? Because his life is pained and incomplete without the spiritual happiness that suffuses those who dwell in the sukkah for seven days.

This is why we decorate the sukkah so joyfully. The Gemorah in Shabbos derives from the posuk “zeh keili v’anveihu,” the mandate of hisnaeh lefanov bemtizvos, to enhance and beautify the mitzvos. The first examples given are sukkah and lulav, and as we know, these are two mitzvos for which people generally go to much extra expense and exert themselves to the utmost to carry out with style.

Decorating the sukkah is our way of expressing our appreciation for the gifts with which Hashem has showered us. That bounty includes our little makeshift sukkah-home of seven days duration which teaches us valuable lessons.

We display the various decorations and we say this humble sukkah is as beautiful as our home. The shulchan in our sukkah is like the mizbeiach. What can be more rewarding than basking b’tzilah d’mheimnusah?

We awaken in the morning and happily fetch our lulav mehudar and hadar esrog and bring them into our sukkah na’ah. We make the brocha thanking Hashem for sanctifying us and giving us the mitzva of netilas lulav.

Beauty is in the Eyes of the Halacha

The halacha sets the criteria determining what constitutes the beauty of the lulav and esrog. A top quality lulav is one which conforms precisely to the halacha and is green until the very top. A beautiful Esrog is one which the Shulchan Aruch defines as hadar; free from black spots. It is not the neighbors or trend setters who define standards of beauty, but the Torah. We learn that lesson on Sukkos and try to carry it with us the rest of the year.

The posuk states that we should understand and know that our people were sheltered by Hashem in sukkos while in the desert. It is impractical to live our whole lives in the sukkah, but spending a week there at the Torah’s command teaches us that it is indeed possible.

The generation of the people who left Mitzrayim is termed the dor de’ah, as Chazal say, “Ro’asah shifcha al hayom mah shelo ra’ah Yecheskel ben Buzi.” Perhaps one of the reasons the Torah commands us to observe Sukkos in Tishrei following the Yomim Noraim is because it is at this time of year that we have been purified from sin and it is the closest we will ever come to the level of the Yotzei Mitzraim and are most receptive to the message of the sukkah.

It is in Tishrei, after going through the process of purification from sin, that our psyches can accept that only Torah and Mitzvos are permanent. The Jewish people, too, retain this quality of immortality and indestructibility.

Additionally, the Torah handed down to us in Midbar Sinai is the exact same Torah the Jewish people have followed for millennia, until this very day. We follow the same hilchos sukkah, and are particular about precisely the same criteria our forbears were meticulous about while seeking the perfect lulav and esrog.

Through all the exiles, through all the years of wandering and dispersal, Jews have used the same daled minim that we use this year. Talk about permanence!

This idea may be included in the commandment of “lema’an yeidu doroseichem ki vasukkos hoshavti.” Let your children know throughout all the generations that the same sukkos the Jews lived in during their trek through the Midbar, you yourselves must dwell in for seven days.

Indestructible and Eternal

Is there anything that can gladden a Jew’s heart as much as recognizing the indestructibility of Torah and the Jewish people? That may be why simcha is such a significant component of Sukkos. That may be why we celebrate Simchas Torah immediately following Sukkos. We make the siyum haTorah and begin the Torah anew with a fresh understanding of its importance along with a renewed sense of awe for our unique mission.

As we sit in our sukkah looking up at the heavens we realize that we are never alone. We look around the small room and realize that as children of Avrohom Avinu, we can also be blessed with kol – if we would only open our hearts and minds to appreciate the gifts the Torah bestows on those who follow in its path.

People who do not appreciate the message of the sukkah and our way of life do not understand the mitzvah of sukkah. They don’t see the difference between what we are doing and a poor homeless person who finds an empty lot and fashions himself a place to live out of scrap wood. He huddles in the cold rain and gusty winds; he barely has room to move around. How pathetic—and how utterly different his experience is from our own!

When a Jewish family sits in a room made of the very same materials, they sing songs of grace to the Borei Olam for blessing them with kol. They are warm, they are happy, they are at peace.

Surrounded by life’s most precious blessings, they reside under the tzilah d’mheimnusah; their walls protect them from the ruach hazman; they are links in a chain passing back to Sinai and Aram Naharayim.

They are on a journey which will lead them back home with the binyan Bais Hamikdosh b’mheirah b’yomeinu amen.