There was once a man, whom we will call Andy, who was diagnosed with a rare and severe illness. Unique conditions often call for unconventional treatments, and he was advised to try psycho-physical therapy: he was told to find someone who lives in complete joy with no worries, ask him for his coat, and wear that man’s coat for seven days. Hopeful that he would soon feel healthy again, Andy embarked on his mission to find such a person. He searched everywhere, asking everyone he met if they or someone they knew was completely happy without worries. Unfortunately, after many months he still hadn’t found anyone who fit the description.
Finally, with the debilitating illness still progressing, Andy was referred to a man named Sam who, he was told, was happy and had no worries at all. It was winter, yet Andy anxiously trudged through the snow to a park bench where he was told Sam could be found. Andy sat down next to Sam and began his inquiry.
“Are you Sam, the man they say is filled with joy, who has no worries?” Andy asked.
“Yes, indeed I am,” Sam replied with a smile.
“Wonderful! May I borrow your coat for seven days? It would really mean a lot to me.”
“Of course! I would love to lend you my coat, but there’s just one problem.”
“What’s that, Sam?”
“I have no coat.”
-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis/Torah.org
“The Party That Never Ends”
This lesson from Rabbi Dixler somewhat reminds me of something that the Master taught:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. -Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV)
But what does all this have to do with Sukkot? Plenty.
As Rabbi Dixler points out in his commentary, during Yom Kippur, observant Jews immerse themselves in prayer and supplication before God, turning aside from physical pleasures and imploring their Creator to help them build a new future. Immediately after such a time of plunging into the intense personal and spiritual depths, emerging after the fast and knowing that Sukkot is immediately upon them, the soul rebounds and rises into great joy.
Interestingly enough, Jews are to leave their regular dwellings and reside in “simple huts with deliberately poor roofing” for this week-long holiday, entertaining their guests including, traditionally, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David…a different guest each night. It would be like welcoming a different king on each successive night, and entertaining them in a makeshift lean-to. After the personal deprivation of Yom Kippur, why eat and drink and sleep in, what for some of us, might be a small, damp, cold, flimsy shelter?
I think the secret is in what we read from Matthew’s account of the teachings of Jesus. With the roof of the tent purposefully incomplete, allowing in rain and letting us see the stars above us at night, we are trading our physical, secular home for one which Rabbi Dixler calls a “new spiritual home” which “serves to inject the spiritual, genuine, joy experienced on Yom Kippur into common daily activities.”
But what about Andy and Sam?
One does not need a coat to be the happiest man alive. In fact, if we rely on non-spiritual pursuits for our joy, we’ll never be satisfied. As the Sages say, “a person does not leave this world with even half of what he wanted” (Koheles Raba, 1:34). Nothing in this world can live up to our dreams, and a non-spiritual focus ultimately ends in disappointment.
The answer is not asceticism. As one of my teachers, Rabbi Berel Wein, used to say in this context, “this is not a plea for poverty, my friends!” We do learn, however, that for any material pursuit or attainment to last, it must at least be rooted in spirituality. If we buy delicious food to share with others, buy a house to raise a family and welcome guests, or pursue a lucrative career to have money to help those in need, we’ll experience the spiritual joy along with the physical joy, and then it is guaranteed to last. (Based on Nesivos Shalom)
I suspect that Andy was relieved of his disorder, not by wearing Sam’s non-existent coat for the next seven days, but by understanding why he didn’t have one. Although you and I might consider spending seven days and nights living, eating, and sleeping under the clouds and the sky as a bit uncomfortable (one or two nights might seem like a camp out), there is joy in relying on God. Our immediate surroundings may seem poor, but we are inundated by the boundless treasures of Heaven. By living in a flimsy structure and yet decorating it elaborately, often with lights, trinkets, pictures and such, and then, inviting guests, from the poorest to the richest, into our hovel, and feeding them abundant food and drink, we are experiencing the reality of our existence. We live on earth and are able to enjoy all that it has to offer, but we are also dependent on the blessings of Heaven above us to shelter our heads from the harsh elements of this life.
One can take pleasure in what the world has to offer and this, God approves of. But the world will not be our lasting joy. Only God can give that.
Chag Sameach and Good Sukkos.