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The Simple Things

2 minute read
Straightforward

Sukkos is the harvest festival. Nature and God have given their bounty; a year of stressful and messy work in the field has finally paid off, and the storehouses are full. In an agrarian society, it was probably the time of year where everyone got their best night’s sleep on a full belly.

And yet Sukkos is the festival of Hoshana – literally, “save us!” – הושע נא. Each day of the Sukkos prayers is marked by beautiful and moving liturgy tracing all the times and circumstances God has saved us, culminating in Hoshana Rabba, with the ultimate wish to please save us too. But it’s the time of year we probably ought to feel most safe and secure!

But the Hoshana prayers seem like they would fit better at calendar moments we were at our lowest and needed God’s salvation most. So why not say them on say, Pesach, when the Jewish People were mired in Egyptian slavery, or maybe the infamous day of mourning and loss, Tisha b’Av?

A recurring theme of the Torah is that challenging moments are obvious in the sense that we know how to respond. In a crisis, we know we have to do better, be better, pray harder, and perhaps fast. Don’t tell the poor soul mired in those unfortunate circumstances to have faith and believe – it’s unnecessary because that’s all they have.

Someone whose family is well and whose well-paying job is stable doesn’t feel the same desperation that the other guy does. How could he?

At the exact calendar moment of security, the Torah reminds us not to take our wins for granted, to count our blessings. We step outside our solid and warm homes into the flimsy and makeshift Sukka, which by definition, must be structurally defective for permanent habitation, reminding us how frail we are and how life is so temporary. That’s not a bad thing – that’s just what it means to be human. The Sukka is not built for inclement weather, and that’s just fine. It’s not supposed to. We don’t control the weather outside the Sukka; we only control what happens inside the Sukka. It’s not made of much, but the mitzvah is to make it as beautiful as possible on the inside.

We step away from the trappings of success to live in simplicity with God. We need to remind ourselves at the moment that we feel most blessed because that’s when we are prone to forget. So we beg for help – save us… from ourselves, from our own complacency.

We can forget that the difference between the successful and unfortunate person isn’t necessarily the effort and merit each puts in. We can forget that a whole lot of things we were desperate for a few years ago worked out quite nicely in the end. The Sukka is an excellent metaphor for the uncontrollable vicissitudes of life, a humbling moment amid proud successes.

It’s not about saying thank you for finally getting what you wanted; it’s about recognizing that you were always blessed. That maybe we don’t need the trappings of success to see our blessings; that in the moments we have deemed to be blessed, we need to remember not to take for granted all the other blessed moments as well.

We don’t control our circumstances, but we can find joy in life regardless.

Recycling the Past

2 minute read
Straightforward

Hopefully, we go into Sukkos on the back of an uplifting Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Resolved to do better and be better, we feel invigorated and full of life. Yet we leave Shul and go right back into the daily grind of everyday living, with the same habits and routines of yesterday.

What sort of change can we expect if we go right back to what we were doing?

Perhaps the mitzvah of Sukka can teach us.

The defining feature of the Sukka is that the roof has to be made from unprocessed raw plant matter and must create sufficient shade. The classic example is the waste product from the threshing floor and winery once you’ve extracted the useful resources. Instead of disposing of the refuse, the husks and stalks can be recycled and repurposed for the mitzvah – which is precisely what Teshuvah is.

It’s not accurate to say that we put the past wholly behind us and move on. Instead, we should carry the past forward with us. Past mistakes can become informative stepping stones for us to learn and improve. History need not repeat itself, and we can evolve.

The Esrog echoes this concept as well. It is the choicest of the four species and the metaphor for an ideal human, yet if you cut one open, the edible fruit is surpassingly small – the inedible rind makes up most of the mass. Even the ideal person has built up plenty of rind over time, yet it’s still a beautiful Esrog.

An old Chassidic saying highlights Sukka as the only mitzvah where a person enters with his muddy boots. Muddy boots are th mark of our journey through life, intimately interconnected with who we are and entirely inseparable; they are welcome in the Sukka.

This may also explain why the Zohar calls the Sukka the shade of God – God is with us in our dark moments too – צילא דמהימנותא. It may also explain why of all festivals, Sukkos, in particular, is the time of joy – the debits can turn into credits – זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ.

There is a tangible Kabbalistic dimension here as well. The Hebrew word for husks and rind is קְלִפָּה. In Kabbalistic symbolism, souls are shining lights, and sins cloak the soul in layers of קְלִפָּה, sort of like an onion. Instead of discarding the קְלִפָּה, Teshuvah transforms it from a bad thing into a good thing.

It’s not a magic trick – sins and transgressions are treated differently based on Teshuvah’s motivation. The way you adapt your past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

So perhaps that’s why Sukkos comes right on the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. While we shouldn’t just sink back into the same routine as before, Teshuvah doesn’t need to look like such a radical departure from the past. Change is incremental – it isn’t so different from past habits and routines, maybe it’s quite similar, but with small improvements and modifications.

Sukkos teaches the holistic view of how we change.

We all make mistakes, but the only real mistake is the one we don’t learn from.

Transcending Time

3 minute read
Straightforward

From Rosh Hashana through Sukkos, honey features prominently at the festive meals. If you give it a moment’s thought, using honey seems odd. Honey is produced by bees, which are not kosher and have a painful sting.

Why not use cane sugar, a naturally growing plant that metabolizes into the energy that fuels all living things?

The Midrash teaches that the idea of Teshuva is supernatural, in that it preexists the universe so that whatever nature is, Teshuva transcends.

The simplified idea belying Creation is that it is a sandbox for humans to make choices and thrive. Choices present tests, and the nature of a test is that it is pass or fail. As much as Hashem can want us to pass our tests, the fact remains that tests can and will be failed. This fact alone requires the existence of Teshuva – failure is not the end; a person can learn from their mistakes, put it behind them, and move on.

The universe operates on fundamental laws of physics that express empirical facts and describe physical properties about how nature works. One of these laws is the law of entropy, which is that natural states tend to undergo increasing decay and disorder over time. Eventually, all things break down.

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld explains that the supernatural aspect of Teshuva is that it unwinds the effect of time and entropy; we can repair our mistakes, removing the decay, leaving only the lesson we have learned. Entropy is a byproduct of a finite Creation, whereas Teshuva is infinite because it predates time and space. Teshuva is not an after-the-fact solution; it’s baked into the fabric of the creation process, so redemption is structurally assured from the outset.

It’s’s like learning to ride a bicycle. The first time you lose your balance, you fall and hurt yourself. Maybe next time you wear a helmet and pads, and you slowly learn how to keep your balance. If you focus on how bad falling hurts, you’ll never learn to ride the bike. But once you learn to keep your balance, you forget about falling, and maybe you don’t need the pads anymore. You now know how to ride a bicycle.

Existence without Teshuva would be static and stagnant – it could never grow, which is why Teshuva necessarily predates existence. With Teshuva, we can change and become, and life is vibrant and alive.

When a person does Teshuva, their sins and transgressions can be measured differently based on their motivation. When motivated by fear, they are downgraded to accidents and oversights; when motivated by love, they can become merits. It’s intuitive; the way a person adapts their past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that this why the Hebrew word for “year” – שנה – is cognate to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” respectively. Today’s achievements are built on the foundations of yesterday; a repetition would be no different to what came first, and a fresh start can’t carry the lessons along the way. This may help explain why we temporarily behave more diligently day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – a reliable foundation is the precursor of a strong building.

R’ Meir Shapiro explains that this is why specifically honey, not sugar, is the centerpiece of the holiday imagery. Honey is kosher, despite being a product of non-kosher origins, and maybe you get stung. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Teshuvah? You made mistakes that weren’t so kosher, and maybe they stung a little; but you learn and grow from them all the same – something kosher from something that’s not.

All this is to say what R’ Nachman of Breslov taught straightforwardly: if you believe you can break, then believe you can fix.

Synthesis as Serenity

< 1 minute
Straightforward

Sukkos is the festival of happiness. The two prominent mitzvos of Sukkos are sitting in the Sukka and shaking the Lulav and Esrog.

What do these laws have to teach us about happiness?

The Ishbitzer notes that the mitzvah of Sukka is passive, fulfilled by sitting or sleeping; whereas the mitzvah of Lulav and Esrog is performed by actively gathering the items and waving them.

We have innate abilities we are passively born with, but there are also things we actively acquire through perspiration and perseverance.

This active/passive framework sheds light on various nuances in how we observe these laws. A stolen lulav does not fulfill the mitzvah; whereas there is no such thing as a stolen Sukka – you cannot embezzle something innate. It similarly follows that on Shabbos, the day we curtail creative activity, we observe Sukka, but not Lulav – all our creative activity can only hope to succeed with God’s blessing.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that we must actively gather the Lulav and Esrog, which is traditionally understood to symbolize the different kinds of Jews – unity is not something innate that we can take for granted; we must create unity through our actions.

To the Ishbitzer, happiness is when we synthesize our active and passive skills and talents into one cohesive whole – when we appreciate the gifts we are born with, change what we can, and accept what we can’t.

While we don’t control our starting points, we do control our trajectories from there.

The God of All

2 minute read
Straightforward

Judaism has several core beliefs that have have been adopted by mainstream culture. Some of them were once radical beliefs that we take for granted today, such as introducing the concept of monotheism to a pagan and polytheistic world.

The ramification of one God, as opposed to many gods, is that the one God must be the God of not just everything, but also everyone.

Unlike almost every other chag, particularly Shemini Atzeres, Sukkos has a pervasive characteristic of inclusivity that reflects this.

The Gemara teaches that the biggest celebration in the Jewish calendar was the famed water drawing ceremony that marked God’s judgment of rainfall for the entire world, for the entire year.

The Gemara also notes that the Sukkos sacrifices had a sequence of 70 animals, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world so that greater humanity might also enjoy a year of abundant blessing.

We may be the conduit of God’s blessing to the world at large, but we are not the exclusive beneficiaries.

Unsurprisingly, the God of all also has compassion for the most distant and lost Jews.

When we wave the lulav and esrog, the different species traditionally correspond to different kinds of Jew, from the most observant to the least. But even the least observant Jew is part and parcel of the Jewish people, and both the mitzvah and the Jewish people are deficient if the apparent “undesirables” are not actively included. Hoshana Raba has a dedicated ceremony specifically constructed around a bouquet of the undesirables.

The Sfas Emes reminds us that the God of all necessarily loves us all. God’s love and compassion is elemental; it is not reserved just for worthy Jews, or Jews at all. On Sukkos, all humans gather under God’s protection – חג האסיף. Sitting in a sukka acts out the simplicity of our relationship with the God of all –  צילא דמהימנותא

Of all Judaism’s special occasions, Sukkos is called the festival of celebration, perhaps because of the simple joy of God’s love for all human life.

Recreating Egypt and Sinai

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Straightforward

One of the more forgotten laws is the mitzvah of Hakhel.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, two weeks after the end of the Shemitta year; every man, woman, and child would assemble to hear a public Torah reading from his personal Sefer Torah:

מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה–בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת בְּבוֹא כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵרָאוֹת אֶת-פְּנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר:  תִּקְרָא אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל–בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת – Every seventh year, after the Shemittah year, on the festival of Sukkos… in the place that He shall choose, read the Torah before all of Israel, so they will hear it. Gather the nation – men, women, children, the stranger among you… so that they may learn and fear Hashem your G-d. (31:10-12)

It’s an unusual mitzvah, in that it is fulfilled by everybody – young and old, men and women, Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Children aren’t typically expected to observe the Torah like adults – yet the Torah not only includes them but adds additional emphasis that they are a part of this ceremony:

וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – The children who do not yet know will hear and learn to fear Hashem your God… (31:13)

Why is it important that children are a part of this mitzvah?

The Gemara says that while a child does not have the mental capacity to technically fulfill a mitzvah, there is a pedagogical benefit to their inclusion nonetheless.

The reason children must attend is simple and powerful: the Torah is for everyone – even the king, and even the children. Today, we call this principle the rule of law.

R’ Shai Held considers Hakhel an orienting event that re-enacts the redemption and revelation the foundational moments of Egypt and Sinai that Judaism revolves around.

It takes place after the Shemitta year because Shemitta releases slaves and debts, and discharges mortgages and pledges.

It takes place on Sukkos because it is the time of year that everyone leaves the illusion of security and trappings of life behind, living with simplicity and vulnerability together – צילא דמהימנותא.

It is not enough that everyone attends; they must be there “together”.

The Shem Mi’Shmuel notes that to achieve the level where we can accept the Torah once more, it takes a whole year of living in liberty and equality, free from the obsession of increasing our private property.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the effort parents have to make to bring their kids teaches the children how important it is to understand this. While it may be difficult to explain to a  young child that something is important, they will understand when you show them.

The Hakhel ceremony reaffirms that beneath the details and minutiae of our lives, we cannot help but acknowledge our shared common identity and fundamental dependence on God. Accordingly, it is entirely fitting that the experience of the children is front and center.

The Torah belongs to everyone. The buildup to the moment at Sinai where the Jewish People could accept the Torah in sacred unity with one voice is reenacted every calendar cycle at Hakhel, and the Torah calls for a similar process to break the barriers down.

To build a community, you need a longer table; not a higher fence.

The Joy of Water

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Straightforward

In the times of Korbanos, Sukkos meant the festivities of Simchas Beis HaShoeiva. People celebrate it’s memory today with ecstatic parties, with music, singing and dancing.

It’s origins are from the time of the daily Tamid sacrifice, which was brought with wine. On Sukkos, it would be accompanied by water as well, the Nisuch HaMayim, to mark the beginning of the rainy season and it’s prayers. The water was drawn from Shiloach, a nearby spring. Before that, the people would celebrate through the night, and the water would be drawn at daybreak for the morning sacrifice.

It is said that someone who didn’t see the festivities of Simchas Beis HaShoeiva never witness true celebration.

What was so special about this celebration, and what was the meaning of the practice?

The Midrash teaches that Simchas Beis HaShoeiva is related to Genesis. The lower waters would be distanced from God and the upper waters, from which land emerged. For this apparent indignity, the lower waters benefit from a covenant that they would take pride of place in the happiest service at the Beis HaMikdash, the Simchas Beis HaShoeiva.

The Midrash is idiosyncratically cryptic. But broadly, it speaks of a distance between God and another, and the longing for closeness, which is bridged once a year.

How much of a consolation is this really; does a one off ceremony compensate for a lifetime of distance?

The Sfas Emes frames the Midrash differently. The ceremony is not a compensation at all. The fact that it’s place is in the Beis HaMikdash, at the happiest moment, indicates that the indignity of the distance is a mistake of perception. If it belongs on the Mizbeach, there was no issue to start with. It is this insight that was worth celebrating wildly.

Sometimes there is a dissonance between the things we see and how we think they ought to be. Simchas Beis HaShoeiva bridges the gap. Even the things we least understand are sacred and meaningful.

Arba Minim: Why Do Jews Shake Lulav And Esrog?

3 minute read
Straightforward

Personally speaking, the Four Species is one of the most downright bizarre and mysterious mitzvos in our tradition. The underlying principle is not stated in the Torah, which concludes the instruction with the general theme of the Chag:

וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים – On the first day, [take the Four Species]; and you should celebrate and rejoice before Hashem for seven days. (23:40)

There is no obvious reason or ethic for doing this, and you won’t find many who can explain it. What significance can saving the Arba Minim have for us?

One of precious few explanations given is that it represents different kinds of Jews. The esrog has a pleasant taste and a pleasant scent, and represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah as well as performance of mitzvah performance. The palm branch, which produces tasty fruit and is itself a food, but has no scent, represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah but are lacking in mitzvah performance. The hadas, the myrtle leaf, has a strong scent but no taste, represents Jews who perform mitzvot but little Torah knowledge. The arava, the willow, has neither taste nor scent, represents Jews who have no knowledge of Torah or mitzvos. We bring all these together to remind us that every one of these four kinds of Jews is important and has their place. And such is life; real community is only found when all types of people can be together. The mitzvah, and society, fails when any part is excluded.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes there is a general principle of hidur mitva, which means that the attitude to any mitzvah should be such that the mitzvah is done in an elegant way. With the esrog, the prescription of the mitzvah is that the mitzvah must be elegant, beyond the general principle of hidur mitzvah. There are people who will spend days on end inspecting their esrog so that the shape and shine are perfect; and this is what the mitzvah actually requires!

Why is this the only mitzvah where we must go above and beyond to search for something perfect, just to fulfil the basic premise of the mitzvah?

Rabbi Farhi explains that the taste and scent allegory applies to ourselves too. There are parts of our practice that we love, understand and are good at, and parts that we don’t like, do, or understand; and everything in between. The part of Judaism that I love, understand, and am good at is something that is worth spending time on, and it should be the focal point. That is worth putting effort into, and being proud of. That is a real achievement. The search for the perfect esrog shows the value we should place on that part of ourselves.

The agricultural element cannot be forgotten either – Sukkos is the harvest festival. The Rambam notes that the Jews complained in the wilderness:

וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה לֹא | מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת – Why have we been taken from Egypt to this awful place, with nowhere to plant, not figs, or grapevines, or pomegranates; nor water to drink! (20:5)

In contradistinction to their ingratitude, taking the Arba Minim, abundant in the fruitful and productive Land of Israel, is a symbolic refutation of their attitude to the care God took of them, and expresses our own gratitude at all we are fortunate to have. The Arba Minim are waved either axis of three dimensional space, vertical, horizontal, and lateral, to signify our awareness that this is the space in which God operates, in a way the desert generation did not appreciate. The plants we take, which require water, are waved at the beginning of the rainy season, as we call on Hashem “Hosha na”, to aid us.

The Rambam’s observation is critical to unlocking what the Arba Minim are. The mitzvah is a rejection of the attitude of the wilderness, and we embrace our reliance on Hashem for all things through it.

Why Do Jews Sit In A Sukka?

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Straightforward

The mitzvah of Sukka requires that for 7 days, a large part of living, particularly eating, takes place in a somewhat flimsy hut, with some plant material as the roof. The primary reason is stated in the Torah:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Every resident of Israel will sit in huts for 7 days; so that the generations will know that I had Israel live in huts when I took them out of Egypt. (23:42,43)

What specific import does this have to us, other than recalling an ancient memory?

Arguably, it is a natural progression from Yom Kippur. We profess multiple times on Yom Kippur that we did not act in private the way we did in public. Perhaps the Sukka brings the two into synthesis. The Sukka is closed, yet anyone outside can hear whatever happens within it’s walls; a Sukka is not private. Perhaps sitting in a Sukka is a commitment to acting in private more like we are in public.

The Rambam explains that the exposure to the elements reminds us of the miracles experienced in the wilderness, the stated reason in the Torah. At the beginning of nationhood, when our people’s history began, and before anything remarkable occurred, we were completely looked after – just like we are surrounded completely surrounded by the Sukka. God is good to us just because, without qualification. Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way.

The Chagim all have an agricultural element to them, which is somewhat anachronistic today – yet the themes remain relevant. Sukkos is the harvest festival, a time of celebration and plenty – a farmer would literally reap what he had sown, finally seeing the fruit of his labour. Rav Hirsch notes that in this time of achievement, we are to walk away, and remember that in a physically and spiritually barren wasteland, we were helpless, yet cared for nonetheless. We retreat from our comforts and securities to a greater or lesser degree. Sitting in a Sukka is a mitzvah of simplicity.

This was more obvious when everyone had to journey to Jerusalem as part of the mitzvah. They would have to leave wherever they were from, whatever their professions, and the roads would be packed with people doing the same thing. By getting there, away from their busy lives, sharing with people doing the same thing, there would be a strong and shared sense of common identity.

The simplicity of Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way, no matter the circumstance or whether we deserve it. This realisation ought to cause a deep sense of gratitude for all the goodness we experience, as well as feelings of modesty and humility. Thinking about all this may even get us to act more like it too!