The life of the Rambam reflects the experience of the Bnei Yisroel in golus. Born in Cordova, Spain, to a family that traced its lineage back to Dovid Hamelech, at the age of 13 he was forced to flee. Almaden Muslims, who captured his city, gave the Jews an ultimatum: Either adopt Islam, leave, or die. His family left Spain and set out on a long voyage, which ended in Fez, Morocco. Along the way, the Rambam composed his Peirush HaMishnayos.
Fez was also under Almaden rule, but since the Maimon family was counted as foreigners, they were not forced to convert. An incident that took place on Sukkos placed the Rambam’s life in jeopardy and forced him to be on the move once again.
On Sukkos, the Rambam was walking in the street with his lulav, esrog, haddasim and aravos. It was a strange sight, as most Jews feared the Muslims and did not express their religion in public, certainly not with any degree of pride. A minister’s henchman spotted him and asked why he was parading in the street like a crazed idiot with branches and a palm stick. The Rambam replied that those who throw stones are the crazy ones, not those who observe the commandments of He who created the world.
When told of the insult to Islam, whose custom was to throw stones at the cave considered holy in Mecca, the minister decided that the Rambam should be arrested and killed. The Rambam fled and found room on a ship headed to Eretz Yisroel. There was hunger and desolation in the holy land, so he left and ended up in Egypt, where he flourished.
Sukkos is a Yom Tov that celebrates many things, among them how Hashem protects us in golus. It also hints to the eventual geulah. This is perhaps why it is said (Tur 417) that the chag of Sukkos is connected to Yaakov Avinu. He is the father associated with golus, as he left home to escape the clutches of his brother Eisov and later in life followed his son Yosef into exile in Mitzrayim. Despite all the hardships he endured, Yaakov was appreciative to Hashem for everything, as Chazal say (Medrash at the end of Parshas Vo’eschanon): “The posuk states, ‘Ve’ahavta eis Hashem Elokecha bechol levovecha uvechol nafshecha uvechol me’odecha.’ Avrohom loved Hashem with his whole heart, and Yitzchok loved Hashem with his whole soul, for he was prepared to die at the Akediah. Bechol me’odecha refers to Yaakov, who thanked Hashem for all, for the good and for the bad.”
Yaakov showed us the way to endure when we are not in our own home, but are exiled among strangers. Our ability to survive in all the temporary dwelling places in which we have found ourselves throughout the ages was instilled in us by Yaakov.
The sukkah reminds us that we are in golus, awaiting redemption. This can be inferred from the posuk (Vayikra 23:42-43) that explains that the reason we were commanded to live in the sukkah on Sukkos is “so that your generations will know that I placed the Jewish people to live in sukkos when I took them out of Mitzrayim.”
According to Rabi Akiva (Sukkah 11b), just as they dwelled in sukkos when they traveled in the desert to Eretz Yisroel, so too, as we are slowly making our way to the geulah, we commemorate what Hashem did for us back then.
Rabi Eliezer argues with Rabi Akiva and posits that the posuk (ibid.) refers to the Ananei Hakavod that hovered over the Jewish people in the desert, providing them protection. The sukkah reminds us of the time we merited the Divine protection engendered by the Shechinah traveling along with us. The reminder serves to inspire us to bring ourselves once again to the level of meriting the Shechinah being amongst us.
The Yom Tov of Sukkos is a most appropriate time for this remembrance, because, at this time, following Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, when we have repented and are cleansed of our sins and have rectified our middos ra’os, we are in a preparatory state of redemption.
The geulah cannot come as long as there is division between Jews and as long as we speak lashon hora, which is an outgrowth of sinas chinom, the original cause of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh.
However, apparently, lashon hora is so endemic to us that it can only be eradicated by Hashem himself. It’s not me who says that. It is a Medrash at the end of Parshas Ki Seitzei. “Hakadosh Boruch Hu says, ‘Because you have amongst you people who speak lashon hora, I removed My Shechinah from among you, but le’osid lavo, when I will remove the yeitzer hora from you, I will return my Shechinah among you.’”
The Medrash seems to be saying that the churban was caused by lashon hora and the Bais Hamikdosh cannot be rebuilt until we are free from lashon hora. The urge to engage in lashon hora is so great that it will take a Divine act to remove the scourge from us.
However, it would seem that following Yom Kippur, we can be on a level akin to the time when Hashem will remove the yeitzer hora altogether. It is therefore now that we construct small homes reminiscent of the Ananei Hakavod, Hashem’s Shechinah, which protected us in the desert after we left Mitzrayim.
We are saying, in essence, that we hope to be able to maintain the level we reached on Yom Kippur and merit not only sitting in the shadow of Hashem’s greatness, b’tzeilah demeheimnusah, during Sukkos, but permanently as well.
With this, we can also understand the teaching of the Vilna Gaon (Likkutei HaGra M’Vilna, Sukkos, 425) that the sukkah is meant to subjugate the yeitzer hora for lashon hora. Since we have attained a high level through the erasure of our sins and bad traits, and we sit under the s’chach, which reminds us of the Ananei Hakavod, we ponder our fate in the sukkah, which is connected to Yaakov, the father most closely associated with golus, and recognize that if we continue to refrain from lashon hora, we can bring about the ultimate redemption and the arrival of Moshiach.
With this we can also understand why when we leave the sukkah at the culmination of yom tov we recite a short prayer, something we do not do when completing any other mitzvah. We say, “Just as I properly performed and dwelled in this sukkah, so too I should merit to sit in the sukkah of the Levioson,” [at the time of Moshiach]. We are saying, that since the way we observed this mitzvah of sukkah, by refraining from lashon hora, demonstrates that we are worthy of redemption, we ask that we merit the arrival of Moshiach and the final redemption.
It was Pesach in the Kovno Ghetto and there was no matzah. A starving bochur approached the Dvar Avrohom, the senior rabbinic figure in the ghetto, and asked him if he could eat bread, since there was no matzah. The rov asked the boy in which yeshiva he had been learning before he found himself with thousands of others in that awful place. He told him that he was a student in the yeshiva in Vilkomir.
The Dvar Avrohom told the hungry bochur, “If you were someone else, I would tell you that you could eat bread, but since you are a talmid of Vilkomir, you are on a higher level and you should be moser nefesh not to eat bread on Pesach.”
We are not the same people we were a month ago. Starting in the weeks of Elul and continuing with Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur, we have been working to perfect our middos and rid ourselves of sin and things that hold us down. We have been seeking mitzvos to perform to help save ourselves and the world, as the Rambam admonishes us to do (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4), and we have been growing and becoming better and holier people.
Then Sukkos comes and we are energized by our forefather Yaakov and by the ananim that hover above us as they did in the desert, when we were headed to geulah. We proudly observe all the mitzvos of the chag, with an all-encompassing simcha, as the posuk commands us.
What better time is there for Hakadosh Boruch Hu to see that we have done the best we can and merit at this time that He remove the yeitzer hora of lashon hora from us and bring the geulah sheleimah bekarov.
Wherever Jews have been, whether it was the Sinai desert, Yerushalayim in the shadows of the Bais Hamikdosh, Bavel, Rome, Spain, Morocco, Eastern and Western Europe, and everywhere in the world where we have resided since we were evicted from our home, we have sat for seven days in green-roofed wooden huts. Jews throughout the ages have carried the same exact daled minim that we do, with abundant pride and joy.
Let us not think that we live in times that are worse than those our brethren have lived in. Let us appreciate the gifts we have and be thankful that we live in a time when we can proudly walk in the street with our daled minim, and we can safely erect sukkos without fear that the municipality or neighbors will take them down. Let us suburbanites be thankful that we can have our own private sukkah and don’t have to shlep with our dishes and food up and down flights of stairs.
Let’s be thankful that our children can grow up in a time of minimal anti-Semitism, when observance of mitzvos is a natural thing to do and they don’t stick out as some vestige of a time gone by.
Sukkos is a time of happiness, brought on by being appreciative and accepting, as was our forefather Yaakov, who thanked Hashem for everything that befell him in his turbulent life. Because of that, he was able to be productive and holy, giving birth to the twelve shevotim. Because he didn’t get down when things didn’t seem right or fair, he merited being our father and the father of our nation. His son was lost, his beloved wife died young, he was often far from home and hounded, he was cold at night and sweltered by day, but he thanked Hashem for it all.
So should we!
Have a great Yom Tov. Chag someiach!