A good portion of our lives, for better or for worse, is impacted by food. Whether we enjoy chocolate, barbeque foods, a slurpee, pickles, cholent, sushi, Chinese, French, Israeli, American or Swazilian cuisine, we each have our comfort foods, our cravings, our favorite palate-pleasers. We may feel invigorated after downing a particularly bold coffee, warmed after partaking of a hearty soup, or pleased after sampling a sweet dessert.
Imagine what life would be like for someone whose taste buds are permanently numbed.
Breakfast, lunch, supper, snack, nosh, appetizer, entrÃ©e – none would be more than a wad of tasteless mass to chew and swallow. There would be no food to look forward to, no dessert by which to get excited, no associating this or that Yom Tov, time of day or bubby with a particularly pleasing dish.
Imagine the monotony and dullness faced by one missing what is, after all, not one of the relatively earth-shatteringly important functions of our body. All the various stimuli, mood-changers and pick-me-ups we take for granted – without giving them a second thought – gone. No more easy way to refresh the body or rejuvenate the spirit. Only monotony and dullness in its stead.
How boring. How frighteningly gloomy, uninteresting and tedious such an existence can easily become.
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We have mitzvos. Six hundred and thirteen of them. That’s a lot of mitzvos. A lot of something can be good or bad, depending on what those things are and how they impact our lives. If the mitzvos are spices that spice up our lives, then the more the merrier. Two tasty dishes in our lives would definitely break up the monotony, but five would be a lot better! Twenty different dishes – some hot, some cold, some spicy, some sweet, some chewy, some smooth, some tangy, some pungent, some juicy, some light, some flavorful, some basic, some rich – would enhance our lives to an amazing degree!
Imagine six hundred and thirteen distinct stimulants, flavors, enhancers and enticers. What excitement, what interest, what novelty and thrill that adds to anyone’s life! You think fifty flavors of ice cream are cool? Do fifty different toppings excite you? Try six hundred and thirteen! These are flavors that last, that satisfy, that fulfill – and only our Torah’s got ‘em. Nothing else.
Now suppose mitzvos would chas veshalom be tasteless, lifeless or dull. A few would be manageable, some more perhaps okay. Six hundred and thirteen of them? That would be quite a burden! We’d have to do them if Hashem asked us to, but it wouldn’t be fun.
Hashem, in fact, did give us six hundred and thirteen mitzvos. We do them because we are commanded to do so by our Creator. Difficult or easy, short term or long, we accept and carry out the Will of our G-d.
However, our Torah and our mitzvos luckily are the spices of life. While not always easy, our Torah is meant to be immensely enjoyable and fulfilling. One who feels no joy in his Yiddishkeit is clearly not tasting its flavor.
When we learn the reasoning behind any one of the mitzvos, we call them “ta’amei hamitzvos.” “Ta’am” is translated as “reason.” Thus, ta’amei hamitzvos are the reasons for the mitzvos.
Ta’am, however, has another translation as well. Ta’am can mean taste. In this context, ta’amei hamitzvos are the tastes, the flavors, of the mitzvos.
Thus, we see that while one must carry out the Will of our Creator regardless of whether we do or don’t understand any specific “why,” understanding the ta’amei hamitzvos, the reasons, benefits and advantages of what we are doing, will provide us with ta’amei hamitzvos, the full flavor, excitement and stimuli associated with each particular mitzvah.
We can turn six hundred and thirteen commandments into six hundred and thirteen individual, unique, original, and unbeatable flavors.
When it comes to the mitzvah of sukkah, we find an interesting phenomenon. Whereas most mitzvos are fulfilled by simply bearing in mind that we are doing this or that particular mitzvah, the Torah commands us on Sukkos specifically to have in mind while we are sitting in our sukkah why we are in fact doing so.
“Basukkos teishvu shivas yomim – In sukkos you shall sit for seven days, lema’an yeidu doroseichem ki basukkos hoshavti es Bnei Yisroel – so that your generations shall know that in sukkos did I shelter the Bnei Yisroel when I took them out of the land of Egypt…” (Emor 23:42-43).
This halacha is mentioned in the Mishnah Berurah (625:1), who writes, “Vekosvu ha’Acharonim, and the Acharonim write, that one should bear in mind while he is sitting [in the sukkah] that Hashem commanded us to sit in the sukkah in remembrance of our exodus from Egypt and also in remembrance of the Ananei Kavod, the Clouds of Glory, with which Hashem surrounded us at that time to protect us from the heat and the sun.” (The Mishnah Berurah says that this is the “mitzvah ketikunah,” though bedieved one is yotzeh as long as he had in mind simply to fulfill the mitzvah.)
Sukkos is emblematic of our closeness and our special relationship to Hashem. It is, more than any other period of the year, a time of joy and rejoicing. “Chag hasukkos ta’aseh lecha – A festival of sukkos shall you make for yourselves… Vesamachta bechagecha – And you shall rejoice in your festival, vehayisa ach somei’ach – and you will be [blessed with] only happiness [with no mixture of sadness]” (Re’eh 16:13-15, see commentaries).
Whereas with other mitzvos their reasons are often told to us by Chazal and are almost never an actual part of the fulfillment of the mitzvah, in this specific mitzvah,where we symbolically go out to reside directly under the protection and closeness of Hashem’s Shechinah, which is the pinnacle of joy and happiness, the Torah itself tells us to focus not only on what we are doing, but on why we are doing it, so that we can savor and enjoy the flavor of the mitzvah to its fullest.
We live in an age of disillusion. Sad to say, many observant families – especially ones who allow the shallow non-Jewish notions of fun and entertainment to infiltrate the home – openly look at their mitzvah observance as a burden for which they sacrifice. Even many strictly observant families seem to have lost their zest and excitement somewhere along the way. They may follow every last mitzvah and minhag down to the minutiae, but the excitement, the fulfillment, the sheer joy of Torah and mitzvos seems starkly missing. This is not only among the children, but among the adults as well.
What a pity! What a tragedy. That’s no way to keep Torah. When we lose our zest in Torah and mitzvos, we’re like the fellow who numbed his taste buds and goes through life – day after day, month after month, year after monotonous year – eating treats, sampling delicacies and downing delights, but tasting none of it. “Uch, this stuff tastes like cardboard,” he says, and we pity him. The guy’s eating steak, yet it’s dust in his mouth.
There is flavor to Torah and mitzvos. Six hundred and thirteen uniquely sumptuous sensations. We must find that ta’am, the flavors, by learning the ta’am, the reasons. We mustn’t keep Torah by rote. We may know all the hows, but we must also learn the whys. There are mitzvos that teach us sensitivity, self-worth, self-control and self-improvement. There are mitzvos that teach us caring and sharing, how to be a true friend, how to enjoy that which we have, how to make peace and how to keep peace. Torah teaches us how to really enjoy life, a joy that won’t peter out and leave us empty and depressed, but that will last and leave us eternally fulfilled.
It’s all in there. All the flavors and all the toppings. We need to just make the effort to learn them, to live them, and to savor their flavor.
What flavor is your sukkah?