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 schlep, 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 Sukkos (some refer to it as Sukkot), which began Wednesday night, is referred to as “our time of joy.” Although there is a mitzvah of joy on every holiday, as the Torah says, “vesamachta bechagecha,” “be joyous on Sukkos.” Sukkos has something unique about it as a time of joy which transcends that of any other time 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, that joy is quite vulnerable and transient. What if one suddenly lost their home in the Hurricane Harvey flood, as did so many? 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 joy 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 connection to the Almighty has no relation to time and place. We had a special connection in Israel with the holy Temple, but even when we lost those we retained our connection 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 God.
We bring that relationship alive on Sukkos. On Rosh Hashanah we “coronated” the King and entered His palace. On Yom Kippur we purified ourselves, transcending food and drink, and forged a new, even deeper connection. This bond is not of a transient nature; it becomes part of our very existence. Sukkos is the time we celebrate that eternal bond. By the very nature of the celebration it’s not sufficient to simply “do something”; we need to “live” that bond.
Hence the mitzvah of Sukkos 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 God. This brings us to a unique state of 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 that relationship with joy for an entire week we can then transition it back to our regular homes and lives. Although we return to our familiar places after Sukkos, 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 higher. 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 Sukkos holiday to you and all the readers!
Dear Rabbi Fried,