The Empty Sukkah

The empty sukkahRabbi Pinchas of Koretz was a spiritual giant in his generation. At first, his greatness was mostly unknown to his contemporaries, but he had no regrets; indeed, it suited him just fine. He spent his days and nights in Torah-study, prayer and meditation. Rarely was he interrupted.

But then, the word began to spread, perhaps from fellow disciples of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, that Rabbi Pinchas was very, very special. People began to visit him on a regular basis, seeking his guidance, requesting his support, asking for his prayers and beseeching his blessing. The more he helped them, the more they came. The trickle to his door became a stream and the stream became a daily flood of personal stories and requests for help.

Rabbi Pinchas was overwhelmed. He felt he was no longer serving G-d properly, because he no longer had sufficient time to study, pray and meditate as he should. He didn’t know what to do.

-Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles
“The Unpopular Tzaddik”
Chabad.org

Rabbi Tilles goes on to tell the story of Rabbi Pinchas and the disastrous results of his desire to, in essence, be left alone with God. Rabbi Pinchas forgot that he was put into a world full of people and as much as people can be distracting at times, we ignore them at our own peril.

As the story goes, Rabbi Pinchas asked for and received a boon from Heaven, that people no longer be attracted to him in the slightest. However, there is a saying: “Be careful what you ask for.” Sukkot is a terrible time to be alone for a Jew.

In those days in Europe, people desiring an invitation to a meal would stand in the back of the shul upon the completion of the prayers. The householders would then invite them upon their way out, happy to so easily accomplish the mitzvah of hospitality. Rabbi Pinchas, unfortunately, did not find it so simple. Even those without a place to eat and desperate for an invitation to a sukkah in which to enjoy the festival meal, turned him down without a second thought. Eventually, everyone who needed a place and everyone who wanted a guest were satisfied, except for the tzaddik, Rabbi Pinchas.

He trudged home alone, saddened and a bit shaken up at the realization that he might never have another guest, not even for the special festive meal of the First Night of Sukkos. Alas, that too was part of the price of his freedom…. It was worth it, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it? Rabbi Levi Avtzon tells a different story about Sukkot, why it exists, and why we are here.

Thousands of Chabad rabbis and students go out to the streets in Sukkah Mobiles to meet fellow Jews and offer them the opportunity to shake the Four Kinds (“Please don’t shake them too hard!”), grab a bite in the sukkah, and just have a nice friendly chat (“You’re from Australia? How awesome! I have a cousin there. Do you know him?”). Unity.

At the core of the almost seven billion human beings walking the beautiful earth is a quest for unity: unity and harmony within ourselves, unity with our fellows and environment, and unity with our Creator. This quest can be covered with dust, concealed by hate and stigma, obscured by ego, and masked by bloodshed—but the quest never dies, and never will die until we bring peace and harmony to our world.

For seven days a year we dedicate ourselves to bringing unity to our world. On this holiday, united we sit.

What could have been more wrong than for Rabbi Pinchas to create a situation where he was completely denied unity and fellowship with other Jews at so joyous a season? And yet, was there a silver lining to his cloud? For a moment, it seemed so.

Pausing just inside the entrance to his sukkah, Rabbi Pinchas began to chant the traditional invitation to the Ushpizin, the seven heavenly guests who visit every Jewish sukkah. Although not many are privileged to actually see these exalted visitors, Rabbi Pinchas was definitely one of the select few who had this experience on an annual basis. This year, he raised his eyes and saw the Patriarch Abraham–the first of the Ushpizin and therefore the honored guest for the first night of the festival–standing outside the door of the sukkah, keeping his distance.

Rabbi Pinchas cried out to him in anguish: “Father Abraham! Why do you not enter my sukkah? What is my sin?”

Replied the patriarch: “I am the embodiment of Chessed, serving G-d through deeds of loving-kindness. Hospitality was my specialty. I will not join a table where there are no guests.”

The story of Rabbi Pinchas ends on a happy note. After much prayer, Heaven hears and answers and “throngs of people were again finding their way to his door; seeking his guidance, asking his support, requesting his prayers, and beseeching his blessing.” While by nature, Rabbi Pinchas was a solitary and studious person, thanks to Father Abraham, the interruption of his most cherish activities was no longer seen as a problem.

Chabad's mobileI find it interesting that Rabbi Avtzon characterized Sukkot as symbolic of “seven billion human beings walking the beautiful earth is a quest for unity: unity and harmony within ourselves, unity with our fellows and environment, and unity with our Creator.” This illustrates that somehow, it is not only the Jewish people who seek God, it is not only the Jewish people who seek His shelter, and it is not only the Jewish people who seek unity. Sukkot represents the quest for world-wide unity under God, and yet like Rabbi Pinchas, some of us will sit in our sukkah alone.

Rabbi Pinchas created his own problem and thanks to a lesson from Heaven, he also resolved it. Tonight begins the seven days of Sukkot (I put up the family sukkah in my backyard last night) and the world’s population of Jews (and a few Gentiles like me) will be entering a sukkah somewhere, taking meals, hopefully sharing company with many guests, and maybe even sleeping within their make-shift tents, relying on God to keep out the wind and rain in memory of the same shelter He provided to the Children of Israel in the desert.

The empty sukkah of Rabbi Pinchas was a bitter thing and even Abraham would not enter, but for those who are alone through circumstances or by choice, there is still some benefit in being an open and empty container.

The beginning of all paths and the foundation of all ascents is to open yourself to receive from Above.

And how do you receive from Above? By being empty—because a full vessel cannot receive, while an empty vessel has a hollow to be filled.

That is why we must run from depression; because a depressed person is so filled with his own self-pity, there is no room left to receive anything, no opening for life to enter.

But a humble, open spirit is vibrant with joy.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Joyful Emptyness”
Meditations on Happiness”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Chag Sameach Sukkot!

And if you’re wondering about the “Sukkah-on-wheels” as shown in the second image in this blog post, learn about the world’s largest mobile sukkah at COLLive.com (rumor has it that even Spider-Man gets into the swing of things).

2 thoughts on “The Empty Sukkah”

  1. “Rabbi Tilles goes on to tell the story of Rabbi Pinchas and the disastrous results of his desire to, in essence, be left alone with God. Rabbi Pinchas forgot that he was put into a world full of people and as much as people can be distracting at times, we ignore them at our own peril.”

    A nice reminder that when we serve G-d by going about his business of helping those in need, we are WITH G-d. Great post, James!

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