Seven days shall you dwell in booths (Leviticus 23:42) … and you shall only be rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:15).
Succos is the festival designated as the season of our gladness. Yet the commentaries state that one of the symbolisms of the succah, a temporary hut, is that we dwell in it for seven days to symbolize man’s temporary sojourn on earth for his average life span of seven decades (Psalms 90:10).
Human mortality is a rather sobering thought; it is hardly conducive to rejoicing. Most often we do not think about our mortality, and when circumstances force us to face it, we quickly dismiss it from our minds and go on acting as though we will live forever.
How different Torah values are from secular values! The Torah teaches us that there is an eternal life, a wholly spiritual life, whose bliss is far greater than the human mind can imagine. We are placed on this planet for our ephemeral earthly existence only to give us an opportunity to prepare for the eternal life.
The Torah teaches us to enjoy life, and if it restricts some pleasures, it is because we should enjoy life in a manner that befits a human being. Furthermore, our joy of living should not be diminished by the awareness of our mortality, nor need we deny it. The succah – the symbol of our temporary stay on earth – is beautifully decorated, and we enjoy our festive meals therein. Even our temporary existence can be beautiful and happy, and our faith in the eternal life should enhance that happiness.
Today I shall …
… try to enjoy life as befits a spiritual person, knowing that the true life of man is not the fleeting one, but that of eternity.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 15”
I have to admit that at this time of year, sometimes I envy Jewish people. The traditions surrounding the celebration of Sukkot are so rich and full of life. Sure, I can build a sukkah and I can observe, to some degree, the same traditions, but I wonder what it must be like to have a life-long experience of such celebrations. What memories do Jewish people have of childhood, eating in a sukkah each year, “partying” with relatives and friends, singing, dancing, rejoicing?
I’ve come to the party far too late and worse, I was too late to bring my children. If I had been more timely, perhaps, my son would build a sukkah for his wife and child each year. Face it, in terms of traditions and spiritual depth, Sukkot has got Christmas beat all hollow.
I recently came across a Facebook page called Jewish People Around the World. The stories and photos of Sukkot observance are just fabulous. Certainly if, as Rabbi Twerski says, the Torah teaches us to enjoy life, then Sukkot is one of the crowning jewels of that Torah sentiment.
Rabbi Twerski also said this:
God wants us to enjoy worldly goods, but to do so in a manner that befits a spiritual people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Sukkot, for all its focus on being a “season of joy” does not focus on just the individual seeking his or her own joy as another of Rabbi Twerski’s commentaries notes:
Rabbi Mordechai of Nesh’chiz looked forward all year to the mitzvah of the Four Species on Succos. Since a fine esrog was costly and Rabbi Mordechai was hardly a man of means, he would accumulate small coins all year round, even depriving himself of food, in order to be able to afford an esrog.
A few days before Succos, Rabbi Mordechai joyfully took the money he had saved, and in high spirits, went off to buy the coveted esrog. On the way, he encountered a man sitting at the side of the road, weeping bitterly. He inquired as to the reason for the man’s grief, and the latter told him, “Woe is to me! I earn my living with my horse and wagon, and this morning my nag died. How am I to feed my wife and children?”
“How much do you need to buy another horse?” Rabbi Mordechai asked.
The sum that the man specified was exactly the amount that Rabbi Mordechai had laboriously saved all year long for the esrog. Without giving it another thought, he gave his purse to the man. “Here, my dear man. Go buy yourself a horse’
After the man joyfully left with the money, Rabbi Mordechai said, “Oh well. All of Israel will be fulfilling the mitzvah of the Four Species with an esrog, but I will do so with a horse.”
Rabbi Mordechai’s sacrifice of his personal comfort all year round teaches us how precious is the mitzvah of the Four Species, but his final act teaches us that the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) is even greater.
Today I shall…
… try to realize the greatness of the commandment of charity, to make certain that another person has the means to survive.
I mentioned Christmas before, which I suppose is the closest thing in Christian tradition to Sukkot (apart from Thanksgiving, which strictly speaking, isn’t a “Christian” holiday). I think for some Christians, teaching charity and giving is the focus of that holiday, but for most people, including most Christians, all attention is drawn on buying and consuming material goods for their own sake and for ours, not for the sake of other people.
Also, as we read in the first quote from Rabbi Twerski, Sukkot teaches us the difference between temporal, material values and those for the sake of Heaven, and yet even eternal values are celebrated with the joys of our material world. Our mortal life is much like living in a sukkah, while what is beyond can be compared to basking in the glory of God on His Throne.
If it comes down to experiencing our own joy and providing joy to others in material ways that summon the eternal, I say, is it too much to ask for both?