Wednesday, September 19, 2007

From Volozhin to Sinai

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

A young man left his native town of Mezibuzh to learn in the famed Volozhin yeshiva. It was a huge culture shock. Years later he wrote, “The small towns of Lita were solemn a whole year round; there was no income and poverty was all they knew. But when Yom Tov arrived, old, dark bread was replaced with white bread, and everyone wore freshly cleaned clothing. Yom Tov brought a tremendous change. Everything was different; it felt like going from darkness to great light.

“During the Yom Tov of Sukkos, the town of Volozhin was adorned, all its inhabitants were swept up in celebration; the yeshiva bochurim sang, the school children danced around so merrily. From every corner of town, there was heard only much joy and happiness as the town of Volozhin was overcome with rejoicing and festivity.

“The rest of the year people were not overtly joyful, but when Yom Tov descended, they erupted in joy; their natural inclination became one of jubilance and satisfaction. On Yom Tov, those very same people who were so serious all year, sang and danced in blissful animation.

“This was true of all the Lithuanian shtetlach, but was most pronounced in Volozhin due to the presence of so many yeshiva bochurim. A whole year, they were in a different world, in the world of learning, but when Sukkos came, their inner happiness burst forth and they added even more to the city’s exultation.”

What was it about Sukkos that brought out the latent inner joy which lay covered under the surface and appeared to lie dormant in their Jewish souls all year? What is it about this Yom Tov that brings so much happiness to so many Jews all across the world?

Referring to the Yom Tov of Sukkos, the Torah states, “Vesomachta bichagecha vehoyisa ach someach.” It is said in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the most difficult mitzvah to perform is the obligation to be happy on Yom Tov.

The mitzvah is demanding because it obligates us to be in a state of happiness for the entire Yom Tov of Sukkos no matter what else happens to be going on in our lives. Irrespective of where we are or what we have, we are told to be “ach someach, only happy.”

All year round, we are expected to appreciate Hashem’s gifts and keep everything in its proper perspective, but on Yom Tov it is a specific mitzvah to be in a state of spiritual joy for an entire eight-day period.

It can be small things that upset us, like rain while we are walking to shul, cold in the sukkah, or our family wanting us to take them somewhere on Chol Hamoed. Things might not go our way, someone might insult us, or the Gemara might be difficult and we cannot understand it no matter how hard we try.

Or it can, chas veshalom, be more serious problems, like a loss of income, poor health, bad living conditions, insurmountable debt and a feeling of nothing good to look forward to tomorrow.

Whatever the provocation, we have to work on ourselves to make sure that nothing robs us of our happiness.

How does one manage that? How do we attain the level of inner simcha required in order to be truly happy for a whole Yom Tov?

The Rambam at the end of Hilchos Lulav writes, “Hasimcha sheyismach ha’adam b’asiyas hamitzvah ube’ahavas hakeil shetziva bohen avodah gedolah hi - it is a great feat to achieve simcha when performing mitzvos…”

The state of simcha we are commanded to attain during the Yemei Hachag is not accomplished by simply assuming a superficial smile and repeating clichéd platitudes about being happy and thinking positively. Rather, the simcha arises from the depths of a Jewish heart following the proper performance of the mitzvos hayom and an appreciation of Hashem who commanded us to perform them. This is only achieved by performing the mitzvos to perfection.

Simcha arises when one has achieved shleimus in what one is doing. When we perform a mitzvah in its entirety with all the hiddurim, that produces an inner simcha which overcomes all negativity. A love of G-d sweeps over us and we attain the level of simcha that the Rambam describes as being an avodah gedolah. That state of happiness is what the Vilna Gaon described as the most difficult mitzvah to observe.

Rashi writes on the posuk (Devorim 16:15), “Shivas yomim tachog laHashem Elokecha… Vehoyisah ach someach,” that vehoyisah ach someach is not a commandment, but rather a guarantee. Apparently, the explanation of Rashi’s words is that if you follow Hashem’s words and celebrate the chag in an exemplary way, that itself will cause you to be in a state of simcha. That is why the Vilna Gaon said it is so hard to achieve the mitzvah of simcha, because it is contingent on all the mitzvos hayom being carried out to perfection.

Perhaps this is why we find an exceptional dikduk hamitzvos with the mitzvos surrounding Sukkos. Everyone seeks out the nicest esrog, the greenest lulav, the lushest s’chach and the sturdiest and most heavily decorated sukkah. People spend hours examining the arbah minim to ensure that they have the best and most kosher species money can buy.

Look at these people who spent so much time going from place to place picking out their minim, as they recite Hallel, holding aloft their daled minim. Their faces are radiant; you can see their intense spiritual joy. By watching them you can see that they have attained the simcha prescribed by the Rambam.

Had you been in their sukkah the night before as they made Kiddush, recited the brachos of leisheiv basukkah and shehecheyonu and partook in the first kezayis of challah in the sukkah they worked so hard to put together, you would have seen an angelic glow on their faces.

Sukkos, with its simcha of so many mitzvos - how can you not be happy!

We sit in the sukkah in the tzilah d’heiminusah - the shade of Hashem, perform His mitzvos, and await the visit of the biblical guests. We are b’simcha. We know that we are on a different plane, with a singular way of life and a set of goals totally apart from anything out there in the world outside of our sukkah.

The strength of the sukkah is not in its walls, but in the people inside of it. While we customarily build the sukkah of four walls, it is kosher with two, plus a minor semblance of a third, yet we say that this two-plus walled structure protects us from the world. We feel as safe in our sukkah as if we were in the teivah of Noach, because we look up and recognize that we are in the shadow of G-d’s glory, b’tzilah d’heiminusah. No harm can befall us as long as we appreciate what we have. A Jew who knows that he sits b’tzilah d’heiminusah performing G-d’s commandments cannot help but be happy. In the sukkah of an ehrliche Yid, that joy is almost palpable.

It is interesting that the first time a sukkah is mentioned in the Torah is in Parshas Vayishlach (33:17). The Torah tells that Yaakov Avinu returned from battling the malach of Eisav and meeting up with Eisav himself, and went to the town of Sukkos. “V’Yaakov nosah Sukkosah… ulimikneihu asah sukkos, ahl kein karah shemo Sukkos. Vayavo Yaakov sholeim ihr Sh’chem… And Yaakov traveled to Sukkos and built there sukkos for his flocks… and Yaakov arrived sholeim in Sh’chem…”

Yaakov, fresh from meeting up with his evil brother, built sukkahs to protect his flocks, and then he was a sholeim. If you look at a sukkah and its two-plus walls, you wouldn’t necessarily think of that structure as the prime method of protection unless you were a sholeim. The Torah affixes that adjective to the name of Yaakov Avinu after he constructed the sukkah, because he demonstrated his awareness, after meeting up with Eisav and his malach, that the safest place for a man and his possessions is in the sukkah.

There, in the tzilah d’heiminusah, it matters not that he doesn’t have four walls. It matters not what the ground cover is made of. All that counts is that he recognizes that Hashem hovers over him and protects him from those who do not appreciate the Torah way of life. Perhaps that is why the halacha is not that particular about the materials used to construct the walls, but demands that the roof be made of items which are not mekabel tumah.

We strive to follow the path of our forefather Yaakov, and recognize that it is not the physical aspect of the walls which protect us, but rather it is the G-d of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. The same Al-mighty who shielded Yaakov’s flocks, and who protected the Jews in the desert after their exodus from Mitzrayim, continues to watch over His people.

Thus, we are commanded to live in a sukkah for seven days and remember that Hashem constructed sukkos for us when He took us out of slavery in Mitzrayim.

The Jew appreciates that a transient residence of two-plus flimsy walls is all he needs to protect himself from the 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.

A Jew 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 can afford a person true protection, real permanence and security.

One whose entire life is spent b’tzilah d’heiminusah, in the shade of G-d, is as safe and grounded as when he is in the sukkah. The Jew who internalizes that concept while sitting in the sukkah is overcome with simcha and is experiencing the most fundamental truth of life. He can then apply this to his permanent home at the end of Sukkos.

One who appreciates that he is sitting in the shadow of the Shechinah, 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, truly has all he needs in this world.

While the first reference in the Torah to a sukkah is the posuk quoted above pertaining to Yaakov, the Medrash comments on the posuk, “VaHashem beirach es Avrohom bakol” that Avrohom Avinu had a sukkah.

Perhaps we can understand the Medrash to mean that 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 everything that is “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. His life is pained and incomplete without the spiritual happiness that belongs to those who dwell in the sukkah for seven days. And he doesn’t belong in a sukkah.

Because we understand this message, we expend much effort decorating the sukkah. The Gemara in Shabbos derives from the posuk, “Zeh Keili v’anveihu,” the idea of hisna’eh lefonov b’mitzvos, 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.

We display the various decorations and we say that this humble sukkah is as beautiful as our home. What can be more rewarding than basking b’tzilah d’heiminusah!

We awaken in the morning and happily take our lulav mehudar and esrog hadar and bring them into our sukkah na’eh. We make the bracha thanking Hashem for sanctifying us and giving us the mitzvah of netilas lulav.

The halacha sets the criteria for 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. The style in lulavim and esrogim doesn’t change; it’s been the same for the thousands of years. Over the centuries since Sinai, my great-grandfather and his great-grandfather and I all looked for the same thing in an esrog.

It is neither the neighbors nor the trendsetters of society who define what true beauty is; it is the Torah. We learn that lesson on Sukkos and try to carry it with us the rest of the year.

The posuk teaches us that our people were sheltered by Hashem in sukkos while in the desert. 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 Mitzrayim and are most receptive to the message of the sukkah.

It is during 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 that was 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, the daled minim looked exactly the same as the ones that we use this year.

It is not much a stretch to say that the sukkah is the longest standing building. It is not the edifices which we construct that stand the test of time, for eventually they all crumble and turn to dust. It is the flimsy sukkah which has been around, and withstood the test of time, since time immemorial. It is not the skyscrapers bedecked with devorim hamekablim tumah which are long-lasting, but rather the pure, simple, holy and untainted sukkah.

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 Jewish people must recreate and reside for seven days in the same sukkos which the Jews lived in during their 40-year trek through the midbar.

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 another reason that 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 appreciate 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. We can become shleimim like Yaakov Avinu if we properly construct the sukkah and understand its message of protection from an ugly, degenerate world. With kol and shleimus comes the very essence of simcha which defines the Yom Tov and can define us and enhance our lives.

The Peleh Yoetz writes that one who puts aside his tzaros during the days of the chag and properly experiences the joy of Sukkos and Simchas Torah will be joyous the entire year. Perhaps that is because once he internalizes the message of the sukkah and Simchas Torah, he will have gained a new perspective on life which will guide him during the dark days of winter, as well.

The Rambam (ibid) writes that one who refrains from observing the mitzvos with simcha is deserving of punishment, as the posuk states (Devorim 28:47) that you will be punished “tachas asher lo ovaditah es Hashem Elokecha b’simcha u’vetuv leivov…” because you didn’t serve Hashem with happiness.

Why does the Torah punish a person for not doing a mitzvah with simcha? Why must a mitzvah be done with simcha? Nowhere in the Torah is a Jew commanded to perform mitzvos with simcha. Why is it such an integral part of the commandments, so much so that if we don’t perform the mitzvah b’simcha we are severely punished?

In our column on parshas Ki Savo we explained it according to the line of reasoning we have been following here. Simcha is a state of being which occurs when one performs a mitzvah bishleimusah, properly. One who does not experience joy while performing the mitzvah indicates that he has not properly carried out G-d’s commandment. For this he is punished.

People who do not appreciate the message of the sukkah and our way of life do not understand the mitzvah of sukkah. They have no clue what simcha is or how to attain it. To them it is a remote, unrealistic concept not applicable to their own lives. They don’t see the difference between what we are doing and a person who lives in a ramshackle, unheated shack, huddling in fear and shivering from the cold blowing through it.

But a peek inside a sukkah will drive the difference home better than any words can. When a Jewish family sits in a room made of the very same materials as the pauper’s un-insulated hovel, they sing songs of grace to the Borei Olam for blessing them with kol. They are warm, they are happy, they are complete and at peace.

Surrounded by life’s most precious blessings, they reside under the tzilah d’heiminusah, protected from the ruchei hazeman. They are glorious links in a eternal chain passing back to Volozhin, Lithuania, Mezibuzh, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Yemen, Sinai, Sukkos and Aram Naharayim.

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


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