I was privileged to visit Eretz Yisrael in 1968, just after the Six Day War. Visits to the Kosel Hamaarovi, Kever Rochel and Me’oras Hamachpeilah were a novelty, since for nineteen years we had been prevented by our enemies from connecting with our past. At the Kosel, I noticed some people removing pebbles from between the bricks of the Kosel and was shocked by the scene. It seemed to me that they were committing me’ilah – stealing from the last vestiges of the Bais Hamikdosh. Not much later, Rav Moshe Feinstein published a teshuvah forbidding this desecration of the Kosel. Undoubtedly, for many reasons, people didn’t realize the seriousness of this infraction, and it has since almost completely ceased.
However, what many people still don’t know is that a sukkah carries the same sanctity as other holy places. The Gemara (Sukkah 9a) states that “just as the name of Hashem rests upon the korban chagigah, so it does upon the sukkah.” If there is a bit of s’chach hanging beyond the roof of the sukkah, one would be forbidden from using the tiniest piece for a toothpick or other mundane use. To get a sense of how far this kedusha of the sukkah goes, we should listen to the startling words of my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, upon parting from the sukkah on the last day of the Yom Tov (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Sukkos, No. 119). He noted that in one of the Torah passages about the Yomim Tovim (Parshas Re’eh, 16:2,11,14), there is a discrepancy between Pesach and Shavuos on the one side and Sukkos on the other when speaking of the future Bais Hamikdosh. Concerning Pesach and Shavuos, the Torah says, “The place where Hashem will choose to rest His name.” However, concerning Sukkos, the Torah only mentions “that place that Hashem will choose.”
Why this distinction? Rav Hutner explains that the reference to Hashem resting His name is left out of the Yom Tov of Sukkos because, “in fact, there is another place where Hashem rests His name, on the sukkah itself.” Therefore, just as when those who had gone up to Yerushalayim engaged in a preidah – a leave-taking – from the Bais Hamikdosh, so do we take leave from the sukkah by reciting the Yehi Ratzon upon leaving the sukkah.
One Sukkos, people noticed that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was particularly joyous. When asked, he explained that a certain young kollel member had just visited him together with his wife and children. His interlocutors pursued their questioning. “But rebbe,” they inquired of the rosh yeshiva of Kol Torah, “you have thousands of talmidim who visit you in your sukkah. We have never seen you beaming with such intensity.”
The rosh yeshiva happily explained the source of his gratification, sharing the history of this young family. The father’s own father was totally distant from anything to do with Torah and mitzvos and would not consider his son learning in a yeshiva. His mother, on the other hand, insisted that he go learn. She prevailed, but the tensions over this subject caused the marriage to end.
This young man was depressed and broken-hearted over the fact that he apparently caused his parents to divorce and began to drift from Yiddishkeit. He missed learning sessions, his chavrusos left him, and he received sharp criticism from some of his rabbeim. Eventually, he was ready to completely give up and hitched a ride on Shabbos right in front of the yeshiva. Not knowing what to do, some of the bochurim reported this shocking act to his rabbeim, who insisted that he was no longer welcome in the yeshiva. As he left with his packed bags, a taxi drove up, bringing Rav Shlomo Zalman to the yeshiva.
Upon the rosh yeshiva’s inquiry, the shattered bochur told Rav Shlomo Zalman that he been ejected. “How could this be?” the shocked gadol demanded. “I am the rosh yeshiva and I didn’t know.”
The bochur responded sadly that he had indeed committed an unforgivable act, which the administration felt didn’t even require any further discussion with the busy rosh yeshiva. The boy was embarrassed to give the exact details of his action to Rav Shlomo Zalman, but he finally confessed. Amidst bitter tears, he recounted the divorce, his own deterioration, and finally chillul Shabbos.
“Tell me,” Rav Shlmo Zalman gently asked, “when you got into the car on Shabbos, what were you thinking?”
The bochur’s answer was immediate. “My heart was burning up inside of me. After two minutes, I asked to be let out and could not proceed any longer.”
“Would you ever do such a thing again?” the rosh yeshiva asked.
“No, never,” he responded. “My heart was demolished and I could never repeat such an act.”
“In that case, take your suitcase back to the dorm and return to your Gemara.” “But rebbe,” the young man wailed, “there is no chance that anyone will ever learn with me again.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman responded kindly but firmly, “I will take care of everything. Do not worry.”
The rosh yeshiva approached the best bochur in the yeshiva and asked him to learn with this lost soul.
“But rebbe,” he responded, “I’m afraid he will ruin me.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman responded that “heat brings out heat. If you will implant in him the warmth of the Torah, it will remove any thoughts of sin from his soul.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman then went to several other bochurim and arranged chavrusos for the newly rejuvenated young man for all the yeshiva’s sedorim. The rosh yeshiva’s luminous smile accompanied his conclusion.
“He became one of the best boys in the yeshiva, and now this is his family that has visited me in the sukkah.”
The rosh yeshiva added wisely, with great emotion, “The posuk says, ‘If you will be scattered to the farthest of heavens, Hashem will bring you back.’ This means that as long as a person has some heavenly aspect left inside him, he will return. This is the essence of Sukkos. The structure is taken from the pesoles – the rejected material – from those who have sinned and been rejected. Then it is invested with holiness like the korban chagigah. This is truly a sukkah story.”
The Sefas Emes teaches that in the time of the Bais Hamikdosh, there was an open test of whether or not we had been forgiven on Yom Kippur. The red thread would turn white and everyone would know that they had been forgiven.
Today, although we have no such obvious indicator, our joy on Sukkos is like the whitened thread. If we feel a limitless joy after Yom Kippur, if we feel relieved that our sins have left us, then our joy can indeed be complete and whole. The Gemara (Sukkah 28b) gives the famous heavenly indicator that if it rains on the first night of Sukkos, Hashem has rejected our avodah and we, too, have been rejected. No other Yom Tov carries such a test. Matzos that have been burned black and rendered inedible or Chanukah candles that are mysteriously extinguished prove nothing. Only Sukkos carries such test results and proofs, for we must know if we have elevated the rejected materials to the point of carrying the name of Hashem or not.
We may now understand a famous comment of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh more profoundly. The Torah (Bereishis 33:17) recounts that Yaakov Avinu called the place Sukkos because he had built structures for his animals. Why would Yaakov have attributed the name of the entire area to this seemingly minor event? The Ohr Hachaim answers that no one had ever before rendered such compassion for living creatures as to create a protected home for them. Many deep meanings have been suggested for this interpretation. However, surely one is that by elevating even the lowest of animals to becoming a vehicle for compassion and avoidance of tzaar baalei chaim, causing suffering to animals, is not only a noble cause. It is a reminder that a mitzvah and holiness can result from even what appears to be a minor and insignificant act. Thus, our sukkos also present the ability and even mandate to find and promulgate kedusha in everything we do.
As the Vilna Gaon famously writes in his commentary to the beginning of Shir Hashirim, Sukkos represents not the granting of the Clouds of Glory, but their return after our sin of the Eigel. That is the connection between Yom Kippur and Sukkos. We can now also add that all salvaging of that which has been rejected flows from the special kedusha of Sukkos. May we always be careful to preserve and maintain all kedusha that we find in the world and others, so that the “New Light” of Moshiach can finally shine upon us.