Sunday, Oct 17, 2021

Timeless Sukkos Lessons

We’ve literally moved on. Sukkos is over and we’re back to our routines. For now, no more celestial visitors, and the Four Species are no longer in our hands. However, many of the salient teachings of the past two weeks are not zeman grama, limited to any one season. They are both eternal and very relevant every day of the year. Let us explore just a few of these:

The power of yearning

One of the most important things in life is to yearn for spiritual greatness. We should always strive to grow in our closeness to Hashem. One of the central events of Sukkos, especially in the Bais Hamikdosh, is the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah (Sukkah 51a). This joyous occurrence commemorated the drawing of the water for the annual nisuch hamayim – the pouring of the water – upon the altar in the Bais Hamikdosh. Our sages tell us that no joy equaled it and whoever missed it hasn’t really experienced joy. The ecstasy was so profound that people became prophets from that event alone (Yerushalmi Sukkah 5:1). What is the ultimate source of this unique celebration?

When Hashem separated the waters above from those below (Bereishis 1:7), the waters below cried, “We, too, want to be near the King” (Bereishis Rabbah 5:3 and Medrash quoted by Rabbeinu Bachya, Vayikra, 2:13). From this yearning to be closer to Hashem, Yonah became a novi and Klal Yisroel gained the eternal Simchas Bais Hashoeivah. Hashem, too, demonstrated His own wish for us to remain close to Him by adding Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah to Sukkos so that we do not part from Him. Although we must eventually leave, when we do so through Torah, it is not a true parting (see Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Sukkos 58). One of the eternal lessons is that throughout life, we must always make sure that we are continually growing in our closeness to our Father in heaven.

The tremendous mitzvah of doing for others

A subset of the above is the incredible fact that Hashem consoled the waters below with the fact that they would eventually be poured upon the mizbeiach. Now, we must consider that the mayim hatachtonim would have to wait 3,000 years for this to take place. Yet, they were consoled because of the opportunity to provide a service for Klal Yisroel.

Rav Itzele of Volozhin, in his introduction to Nefesh Hachaim, written by his father, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, writes famously that “man was not created for himself, but to do chesed for others.”

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach pointed out in one of his Yarchei Kallah presentations that we learn this lesson from Moshe Rabbeinu as well. Hashem had forbidden Moshe from davening any more to enter Eretz Yisroel (Devorim 3:26). The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni 940) reveals that Moshe nevertheless prayed that he be allowed to remain alive and enter Eretz Yisroel even as an animal or a bird. Moshe surely knew that immediately upon his passing he would go up to heaven and bask in the radiance of Hashem at the holy throne. Why would he wish to give that up and live as a bird?

Rav Shach gives an astonishing answer. Imagine, he suggests, a young Jewish child is taking a walk with his mother. He looks up and points. “Mommy, look at the beautiful bird Hashem has created.” Moshe was willing to give up his life-long climb toward kirvas Elokim just to spread a bit more kevod Shomayim in the world through one Jewish soul. Let us consider, then, what we can accomplish during our human lifetimes in spreading the glory of the heaven.

It’s the small things that count the most

It is well known that the sukkah teaches us to live more simply, to eschew luxuries and get back to basics. One of the sources of this is the posuk (Devorim 16:13) which states, “You shall make sukkos…when you gather in from your threshing floor and from your wine cellar.” Rashi explains from the Gemara that this means that the s’chach for the sukkah must come from the leftover materials that grow from the ground. Very often, we can accomplish tremendous things with what seem to be “throwaway actions.” This can be a smile or a small donation, a kind word or a simple gesture of caring. However, there is an even deeper meaning to this phrase. On Sukkos, when we do teshuvah out of love, not just fear, our sins are not just erased. They actually become mitzvos. Thus, the Maharsha (Eruvin 13b) teaches us that, in general, we follow the opinion of Bais Shamai that it would have been better for us not to have been created, but when we do teshuvah mei’ahavah, it justifies our very existence. He explains that normally we know that there are 365 negative commandments and 248 positive commandments, affording us much more opportunity to sin than to do good. However, when we repent out of love for Hashem, all those sins become merits, tipping the scales and making our lives worthwhile. Sukkos is a good time to begin our avodas Hashem b’ahavah.

Keeping our priorities in order

My son and I have “a service not a business” providing the arba minim for our shul. I therefore have the great zechus of handling hundreds of esrogim every year. I am always moved by the fact that an esrog may be incredibly mehudar and nearly perfect, but one tiny black dot near the top can not only reduce its value, but literally disqualify it completely. We often do so many things carefully and scrupulously, but then ruin them with a careless word or action. Conversely, things such as bumps (belitos), which are usually not considered to be a positive attribute, are attractive in an esrog and considered both a hiddur and strong point. The esrog represents the highest of the arba minim and in fact mirrors ourselves (i.e., the chotem/nose etc.). We must remember that what is valuable down here on earth is either meaningless up in heaven or, even worse, considered detrimental and ill-favored. Chazal tell us that this world is an olam hafuch – a topsy-turvy version – of the Olam Ha’emes, the World of Truth (Pesachim 50a). The esrog reminds us how to arrange our priorities and to put our greatest efforts into the eternal projects which yield the greatest results.

The good and the bad jealousy

One of the byproducts of sitting in the sukkah for eight days is that everyone is Klal Yisroel is suddenly living in almost the exact same way. No roof is more solid; no one has multiple rooms. In fact, Chazal (Sukkah 27b) tell us that “all of Klal Yisroel can [theoretically] sit in one sukkah. One meaning of this seems to be that we are all sharing nearly identical circumstances for one week of the year (Rav Gedaliah Schorr, Ohr Gedalyahu, Parshas Emor, page 67; Be’er Moshe, page 473). For one week, there is no kinah (jealousy) about gashmiyus. The only envy is about ruchniyus.

A man once asked Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman about purchasing a new car. He had done a favor for someone who wished to reciprocate with such a gift, but his wife was against it for fear of an ayin hara. Rav Shteinman inquired whether he had completed Shas. The embarrassed answer was a quiet “no.” “Well, then,” Rav Steinman continued, “have you made a siyum on any Gemara?” Even more quietly, the man whispered “no.” “If so,” the rosh yeshiva now concluded definitively, “tell your wife that she has nothing to worry about. There is nothing of which to be envious.”

For Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, who lived a life with no materialism whatsoever but incredibly rich in Torah, there is absolutely no reason to be envious of any physical acquisition. The Torah teaches us (Devorim 22:10) not to plough with an ox and a donkey together. The Daas Zekeinim M’Baalei HaTosafos explain that since a donkey does not chew its cud, while the ox does, it would cause intense jealousy amongst the animals. The donkey will watch enviously while the ox is constantly eating, making it feel inferior and angry. We learn that envy of physical matters should be reserved for animals, while for human beings the only thing of which to be jealous is spiritual attainments and superiority.

The story is told of members of the chevra kadisha who approached Rav Chaim Kanievsky with what they thought was a perplexing discovery. The body of an elderly woman had been exhumed in Russia and brought by her family for burial in Eretz Yisroel after seventy years of communism. To the chevra’s shock, her body was completely intact and looked as if she had just fallen asleep. Rav Chaim immediately declared that she must have been developmentally disabled and went serenely back to his Gemara. Indeed, the chevra returned a week later with the information that she had sustained a brain injury when she was a child and lived her entire life without speaking. To the astonished chevra members, he explained, “The posuk (Mishlei 14:30, according to Shabbos 152b) states that bones only rot because of jealousy. This woman never experienced such an emotion and therefore her bones never deteriorated.”

Once a year, during this past Yom Tov, we all had the opportunity to rid ourselves of materialistic envy and concentrate upon the holy Ushpizin and the more recent gedolim adorning our Sukkos.

May we have the wisdom to carry our Sukkos wisdom with us all year long.

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