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
Dear Bart and Kimberly,
The holiday of Sukkot is referred to as “our time of joy” (Siddur, holiday prayers). There is a mitzvah of joy on every holiday, as the Torah says “vesamachta bechagecha,” be joyous on your holidays (Deuteronomy 17:14). Sukkot, however, 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 a flood? (All too common these days, unfortunately for the Jews of Houston and New Orleans, and more!). 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 Al-mighty has no relationship to time and place. Thousands of years ago we had a special connection to G-d in Israel with the holy Temple. Even when we lost both of those, we retained our connection through Torah and mitzvot. For millennia Jews have 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 by sitting joyously in our sukkah. Let’s take a look at the progression of the holidays of this period of time.
On Rosh Hashanah we “coronated” the King and “entered His palace,” remaining there, close to the King, for 10 days. On Yom Kippur we purified ourselves, transcending food and drink and forging 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 that eternal bond. But it’s not enough to simply celebrate our new relationship; rather, we need to live this connection.
Hence the mitzvah of Sukkot is to build a temporary place to live — to live our lives outside of our usual physical surroundings and with joy. In that way we can focus on our real, grounded existence, our loving connection to G-d. We see that we can experience joy and ecstasy despite being removed from our creature comforts and usual surroundings.
This brings us to unique joy, as we know that this — our connection to G-d — 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.
Although we return to our familiar places after Sukkot, 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 greater and higher. It’s eternal. We can then use our homes and everything in them as vehicles to elevate us even higher. This cycle spirals us upward, higher and higher every year!
Best wishes for a joyous Sukkot holiday to you and all the readers!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.