Dear Rabbi Fried,
Could you please explain what is accomplished by sitting and eating in a sukkah? We understand it is a mitzvah to do so and the kids love it, but, truth be told, it is sometimes quite a shlep, both building it, taking the food in and out and sitting in the sometimes not ideal weather. Could you provide some insight which would perhaps add some meaning?
Bart & Kimberly W.
Dear Bart and Kimberly,
The holiday of Sukkot, which begins this Friday night, is referred to as “our time of joy.” Although there is a mitzvah of joy on every holiday, the Torah says “vesamachta bechagecha,” be joyous on Sukkot. Sukkot has something unique about it as a time of joy which transcends that of any other in the Jewish year.
Let’s consider for a moment what brings us happiness. Most people would say that they feel happy and comfortable in their homes, where they have their nice furniture, creature comforts and familiar surroundings. If that was truly the source of joy, it is quite vulnerable and transient. What if one suddenly lost their home in the New Orleans flood? What if someone lost their job and had to foreclose on their home? As tragic and unsettling as that would be, Jewishly one would still need to find a way to be joyous in life. In order to do so, we must find a deeper source of happiness than our physical surroundings. We have been “wandering Jews” for thousands of years, uprooted from homes and communities with barely the clothes on our backs, but have somehow never lost our joy for life.
The true source of Jewish joy is our timeless connection to a higher Essence. Our tie to the Almighty has no relationship to time and place. We had a special connection in Israel with the holy Temple, but even when we lost both of those we retained our bond through Torah and mitzvos. For millennia Jews lived an interconnected, yet separate, existence with our Diaspora neighbors. The “place” we live in is our Jewish world, with its own language, customs and loving relationship to G-d.
We bring that relationship alive on Sukkot. On Rosh Hashanah we “coronated” the King and entered His palace. On Yom Kippur we purify ourselves, transcending food and drink, and forge a new, deep connection. This bond is not of a transient nature; rather it becomes part of our very existence. Sukkot is the time we celebrate this eternal link. By the very nature of the celebration it’s not sufficient to simply “do something”; rather we need to “live” the bond. Hence the mitzvah of Sukkot is to build a spiritual place to live, to live our lives outside of our usual physical surroundings. In that way we can focus on our real, grounded existence, our loving connection to G-d. This brings us to unique joy, as we know that this is the one thing that no foreclosure or flood can ever take away from us. We are that connection!
After solidifying the relationship joyously for an entire week, we can then transition it back to our regular homes. Although we return to our familiar places after Sukkot, somehow something seems different. What’s changed is that it’s not all about the house anymore — we’ve learned that our joy is linked to something much larger and loftier. We can then use our homes and everything in them as vehicles to take us even higher. This cycle spirals us upward higher and higher every year!
A very joyous Sukkot holiday to you and all the readers!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
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Dear Rabbi Fried,