Sukkos is upon us. The Yom Tov of joy has returned. We study its halachos and concepts so that with the observance of its mitzvos, we grasp its lessons.
The Torah tells us that the mitzvah of sukkah was given “lemaan yeidu doroseichem,” so that future generations shall know that Hashem placed the Jewish people in sukkos when He removed them from Mitzrayim. Rabi Akiva (Sukkah 11b) says that they were “sukkos mamosh,” actual sukkos.
We left the servitude of Mitzrayim and crossed the Yam Suf, but we had no roof over our heads to protect us from the elements and to live a family life in a home. Hashem made for us small huts, in which we lived for the duration of our sojourn in the desert.
Allegorically, it would seem that living that way was an uncomfortable experience, yet for all the complaints the Jewish people had, the Torah doesn’t record that they grumbled about their living arrangements. Apparently, life in the sukkah was quite acceptable to them.
And we wonder how that can be.
Living in the sukkah means living surrounded by Hashem’s blessing and knowing that He grants us our needs. A ma’amin is happy with what he has, because he appreciates that his possessions are given to him by a loving Father who provides for each person according to his/her personal needs.
This is symbolized by the humble sukkah. We leave our sturdy, temperature-controlled places of luxury, and for seven days we dwell in a small, barely furnished, uninsulated shed to demonstrate our dependence on Hashem all year round, and our happiness with what we have. If it is ordained for us to live in a place like this, we accept that this is the will of Hashem, and we not only make the best of it, but are actually happy and grateful for what we have.
Therefore, Sukkos is a Yom Tov of joy. When the sun sets on the fourteenth day of Tishrei, happiness descends upon the Jewish people, as they look forward to living for seven days in the shadow of Hashem’s Shechinah.
We begin with the much-awaited experience of sitting in a beautifully decorated sukkah. Chains crisscross its expanse, pictures adorn the walls, and the table is laid out with a crisp white tablecloth and the finest dishes. Everyone is dressed in their Yom Tov best, the refraction of the lights and candles reflecting off the glowing faces of the people seated around the table.
The Vilna Gaon, in his peirush to Shir Hashirim (1:4), explains why we celebrate Sukkos during the month of Tishrei and not Nissan, when we were freed from Mitzrayim and Hashem placed us in sukkos.
The Gaon writes that the sukkah is a commemoration of the Ananei Hakavod that enveloped the Jewish people as they traveled through the desert.
[Whether the Gaon’s explanation is strictly according to Rabi Eliezer (ibid) who disputes Rabi Akiva and posits that the sukkos referred to in the posuk refers to ananim is beyond the scope of this article.]
The clouds that protected us when we left Mitzrayim during the month of Nissan departed when we sinned with the Golden Calf. They did not return until after our teshuvah was accepted. It was on Yom Kippur that Moshe Rabbeinu returned from interceding on our behalf for forty days. The next day, he gathered all of Am Yisroel and related the commandment to build a Mishkon. It took a few days to gather the material, and on the 15th day of Tishrei, they began to work on crafting the Mishkon. It is for this reason, the Vilna Gaon writes, that we celebrate Sukkos in Tishrei.
Since it is the return of the Ananim to Klal Yisroel that we celebrate with our sukkos, they contain an extra measure of simcha. The return of the Ananim was tied to the acceptance of our teshuvah. That empowers us in moving ahead from the days of Rosh Hashanah, Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur, as we see the power of teshuvah and tefillah.
Just as Am Yisroel was able to come back from the depravity of the sin of the Eigel and merit the Ananei Hakavod, the Mishkon and a home for the Shechinah, so too, in our day, if we return with full hearts, our teshuvah is accepted. Thus, after the Yomim Noraim, we construct the sukkah to demonstrate our faith that Hashem accepted our repentance and will accept us as He did at this time of this month when the Jews left Mitzrayim.
Our joy is overwhelming as we await the return of the Ananei Hakavod and the Shechinah. We enter the sukkah and praise Hashem “asher bochar bonu mikol am.” We recite the brocha of Shehecheyonu, thanking Hashem for keeping us alive so that we can celebrate this moment.
The Maharal (end of Drasha LeShabbos Hagadol) goes a step further and says that in the merit of us observing mitzvas sukkah on the first day of Sukkos, Hashem will rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh, which is His sukkah in this world.
However, there are times when it rains on Sukkos and we aren’t able to observe the remembrance for the acceptance of teshuvah and return of the Ananei Hakavod. Rain on Sukkos is distressing, as there is a Divine message inherent in the downpour. The Mishnah in Sukkah (28) famously teaches that rain on Sukkos is compared to a servant who pours a drink for his master. Instead of accepting it, the master throws the drink back in the servant’s face.
How dispiriting it is to have an act of devotion and deference rejected in such fashion.
Why does the Mishnah convey its point regarding the bad omen of rain on Sukkos through an allegory describing a slave and his master? The Mishnah could have made the same point with a tale involving a son serving his father.
A person’s children are his children no matter what happens. If a son is disobedient, he is still a son. If a son doesn’t serve his parents properly, he is still their son. They may be upset with him, and they will try to educate him to improve his ways, but they cannot divorce him from being their son.
Servants and slaves, however, exist purely to serve their masters. The concept of avdus is one of complete servitude. A servant’s very existence is dependent upon his master’s mercy. Should the servant not serve his master properly, he won’t remain a servant much longer.
When a master rejects his servant’s help, the master isn’t merely rebuffing or insulting him. The master is rejecting his very essence. The master, in a statement of invalidation, is declaring that he has no need for the servant.
Our relationship with Hashem is one of duality. We are both children and servants. On Rosh Hashanah, following the shofar blasts of Malchuyos, Zichronos and Shofaros, we recite a brief tefillah. We proclaim that we are bonim and avodim. We ask Hashem that if He perceives us as children, He should have mercy on us the way a father has mercy on his children. If He is dealing with us as avodim, we ask that we find favor in His eyes so that we will emerge triumphant upon being judged.
If that is the case, why, when it comes to Sukkos, is our relationship with Hashem depicted as one of avodim, servants, and not as bonim, children?
Perhaps we can understand this by examining the biblical explanation for the mitzvah of sukkah.
Hashem commands us to sit in the sukkah, stating, “Lemaan yeidu doroseichem ki vasukkos hoshavti es Bnei Yisroel behotzi’i osam mei’eretz Mitzrayim – So that your future generations will know that I placed the Jewish people in sukkos when I took them out of Mitzrayim.”
The mitzvah of sukkah is to remind us that Hashem redeemed us from slavery in Mitzrayim. When we sit in the sukkah, we proclaim that Hashem plucked us out of that awful situation and fashioned us to be His avodim. As Chazal say, “Avodei heim, velo avodim la’avodim.” We are avdei Hashem, not avodim to people who are themselves avodim.
Because we are His avodim, He freed us from the Mitzri’s physical servitude, split the Yam Suf for us, and put us on safe, dry land, where He built sukkos for us and spread His canopy of peace over us. The supreme joy of Sukkos is a celebration of our rewarding avdus of Hashem.
Therefore, since the Yom Tov of Sukkos is a celebration of us becoming exclusively avdei Hashem, when it rains on us in our sukkos, it is as if there is a Heavenly proclamation that our service is not appreciated. The avodah of Sukkos is avdus. It is a celebration of avdus. When there is a taanoh on us, it is a taanoh on our bechinah of avdus. Therefore, the Mishnah uses the parable of a slave and his master to portray the calamity of Sukkos rain.
This might be the explanation of the halacha of mitzta’eir, which is unique to sukkah. A person who finds it difficult to sit in the sukkah is freed from the obligation. We can explain that since we perform this mitzvah as avodim, a servant doesn’t have the luxury of complaining that he is inconvenienced by the master’s request of him. If a servant complains about a task, that is an indication that he has failed in his role and doesn’t appreciate his function. A servant does as he is commanded. His job is to perform for his master and be there at his beck and call. If he cannot do that, he has failed.
An eved Hashem who feels inconvenienced by a mitzvah has lost focus. A person who is pained by fulfilling the will of Hashem has failed in his avodah. Hashem says to him, “I don’t need you here. You may leave.”
We can also understand why someone who sits in the sukkah as rain is falling is termed a hedyot. An eved whose services are not wanted must atone for his wrongdoing and find favor again in the eyes of his master before returning to his service. As long as his master is displeased with him, he must stay away and work on amending the situation. Rain on Sukkos is a message to us that we must work harder to find favor in the eyes of Hashem. One who ignores that message is a hedyot. The proper response is sadness at being turned away and engaging in teshuvah in order to be welcomed back in the tzila demehemnusa, not so-to-speak forcing ourselves on Hashem.
Rain on Sukkos, as well, forces us to reexamine our identity, since our role as avdei Hashem is threatened.
On Rosh Hashanah, each time we blew the shofar, we asked Hakadosh Boruch Hu to have mercy on us, whether as sons or as servants. We are indeed both. We possess the fierce love and devotion of a son, coupled with the loyalty and dependability of a slave.
The avodah of the Yomim Noraim is to work on ourselves to be more subservient to the will of Hashem and be mamlich Him over us. With much longing, we say, “Veyomar kol asher neshomah be’apo, Hashem Elokei Yisroel Melech.” For ten days, we proclaim that Hashem is the “Melech Hakadosh.” We recite pesukim of Malchuyos and pray that “veyekablu ohl malchuscha aleihem.”
The point of these tefillos and others similar to them is for us to recognize our duty as avodim to Hashem. We approach Sukkos confident in understanding our mission and having perfected our avdus. Therefore, when it rains, it is a sign that our avdus is lacking and we have not yet perfected ourselves as required.
Yetzias Mitzrayim was a march to a new reality. Once we felt the bitter taste of servitude to the Mitzriyim, we were led out toward Har Sinai, where we were charged with the mandate of being avdei Hashem.
Rosh Hashanah tells us of Hashem’s greatness. The teshuvah of Yom Kippur leads us to humility. Following those great days, we are ready for Sukkos, humble servants eager to serve our Master.
The excitement we feel about sitting in the sukkah is exhilaration about facing our destiny. In its embrace, we celebrate avdus.
Rav Eliyohu Tabak, who passed away on Shabbos Parshas Nitzovim-Vayeilech, was such a person. No matter what his situation was, he was satisfied, because that was what Hashem wanted for him.
A man who was menachem avel told the family the following. “A few months back, your father told me something he hadn’t told anyone: His doctors gave him only a few months to live. Sometime later, I was very ill and the doctors gave me a few months to live. A few weeks afterwards, I was talking to your father, who asked me why I was so upset. I said that my doctor told me that my heart was weak and that it could give in at any time and cause my death.
“‘Why are you upset?’ he said to me. ‘Whatever happens to you is the ratzon Hashem. Shouldn’t you be happy that you are a keili for that ratzon?’”
What an authentically Yiddish perspective.
That was how Reb Eli lived his life. He knew and understood that whatever happened was Divinely destined to be that way, so how can a person be sad about things that happen in his life? He wasn’t a jolly person, laughing all day like a simpleton. He was quite intelligent, in fact, and serious, but he was thought out. He was saturated with Torah. His thought process and the way he viewed himself, others and the world were through the prism of Torah.
When I was growing up in Monsey, the whole town was comprised of five streets. Nobody had much. We didn’t even know that we were lacking anything, because everyone we knew was in the same boat as us. We weren’t ashamed that we wore hand-me-downs; we didn’t know to be. It was a simple time. People were practical and normal. Yiddishkeit was real to us. No one did things merely because everyone was doing it. There was no showing off for other people. There was no ceremony or pomp.
Back then, everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew the Tabaks, and everyone knew that even in such a milieu, the Tabaks were different. They were a cut above. Reb Eli Tabak never changed from back then. He never changed to adapt as many did. He stayed the same, with it and current, but he was real. He was always real. He never sought to impress anyone or do what others did to fit in.
Rabbi Tabak was an original and he brought up his children to be originals.
He took his sons to a Satmar tish and told them to look at the rebbe’s face and see how holy he appeared. “Look at all the kavod he is getting here tonight,” he said to the young boys. “Do you know why he is so heilig? Do you know why he has so much kavod? Because he is up all night helping people and learning Torah. That’s what you have to do.”
The Satmar Rebbe was real, so Rabbi Tabak attached himself to him, and when he found other people who were real, he attached himself to them, as well.
And he transmitted to his fifteen children the reality of a Torah life. They all relished in it.
His children noticed that every morning, he would sit in the kitchen with his Gemara from 5 a.m. until it was time to daven Shacharis. They saw how important Torah was to him. They saw how many people he helped in so many different ways. They saw how happy he and they were, and they drew one conclusion: Their father was a lamed vov tzaddik.
He passed away on Shabbos at 5 a.m. His last words were, “Amein yehei shmei rabbah mevorach le’olam ul’olmei olmaya.” How fitting.
The Netziv, in his Ha’amek Dovor (Vayikra 16:29), explains that according to teva, the Jews should lose in their tug of war against the nations of the world, for there is no way that Jews are plentiful enough or strong enough to defeat all those who seek their destruction. Klal Yisroel endures because it is lema’alah miderech hateva.
Like our forefather Yaakov Avinu, who beat back his brother Eisov, we are not beholden to teva and the laws of nature.
Thus, when rain falls and prevents us from observing the mitzvah of sukkah, it is an omen that the teva may be dominant during the coming year. It is a reminder that we must complete our teshuvah.
If rain prevents us from entering our sukkah, we fear that it is a message from Heaven that we are not worthy of being the Chosen Nation and bearers of that royal heritage. By consequence, we fear that we are no longer being treated specially as bonim laMakom. Thus, the Mishnah compares us to avodim, not bonim.
To commemorate that we know Hakadosh Boruch Hu stands by us, we build sukkos as our grandfather Yaakov did, confident that Hashem will protect us there.
We pray that we will be seen as worthy heirs to the name Yisroel and treated as Hashem’s children and not as slaves, who are only around as long as their services are desired.
We pray that we will be treated as children, and even if we stray, we will always be welcomed and never abandoned.
The Tur (Orach Chaim 417) writes that the Yom Tov of Sukkos is “kineged” Yaakov Avinu, as the posuk states, “Ulemikneihu osoh sukkos” (Bereishis 33:17). The Zohar also says that Sukkos is “kineged” Yaakov, but derives this from the first part of the same posuk, which reads, “V’Yaakov nosa sukkosah.”
The Torah tells us that Yaakov was “ish tam yosheiv ohalim,” literally a simple, or complete, person who lived in tents. Yaakov was the “tam,” who simply trusted in Hashem without questioning his lot and making “cheshbonos.” Yaakov was the “yosheiv ohalim,” dedicating his life to Torah. For him, a tent – temporary, simple and rustic – was a sufficient dwelling place if that was what Hashem had chosen for him.
“V’Yaakov nosa sukkosah.” It was in merit of those middos that we were given the mitzvah of sukkah, reminding us to live as our forefather Yaakov did, with complete faith, come what may.
The Gemara states (Pesochim 88a) that Yaakov Avinu referred to the place where the Bais Hamikdosh was to be built as a bayis, a home.
Similarly, for seven days, we call the sukkah, which commemorates the return of the Ananei Hakavod and the commencement of the construction of the mishkon, a bayis. The simple room is our home and we are very happy with it.
Sukkos only lasts seven days, but its lessons and inherent joy keep us smiling throughout the cold and darkness of winter. The messages of the sukkah, celebrating the acceptance of our teshuvah, the return of the Ananei Hakavod, and the construction of the Mishkon, warm our hearts and lighten our paths through the golus.
We await the day when our teshuvah for the sins that keep us in golus will finally be accepted. Then we will merit the return of the Shechinah among us and the construction of the third Bais Hamikdosh, bemeheira beyomeinu. Amein.