A Celebration of Life
by HaRav Shlomo Aviner, Head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim.
Our Sages have noted that the mitzva of sukkah is unique in that it is performed with the whole body. One walks into the mitzvah of sukkah fully clothed, down to the mud on one’s boots. In this way, the mitzvah of sukkah is similar to the mitzvah of building Eretz Yisrael. There is even a source for this parallel in Tehillim: “And His sukkah was in Shalem, and His dwelling place in Zion”;¹ sukkah is equated with Zion. The Vilna Gaon notes another similarity: just as one is commanded to construct one’s own sukkah (“ta’aseh ve’lo min ha’asui”), so is one commanded to be personally involved in the mitzvah of building Eretz Yisrael. These are acts which are blessed by God. Moreover, one can even perform the mitzvah of sukkah while asleep. Halacha considers it more important to sleep in a sukkah than to eat in it. This indicates that there are mitzvot which, by their very nature, a Jew performs unconsciously – a sign of the unique quality of the Jewish soul. Likewise, the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael is also fulfilled while asleep.
On Sukkot, we demonstrate that we are in love with life in this world; with our whole being, we immerse ourselves in the mitzvah. We fulfill the mitzvah with our bodies, even when our intellect and consciousness are asleep. In contrast, on Yom Kippur, we minimize our ties with the physical world, in imitation of the angels. As soon as the fast of Yom Kippur ends, we begin to build our sukkot,² emphasizing the connection between these two seemingly opposite mitzvot, which together demonstrate the distinctive nature of the Jewish soul. Sukkot does not signify a spiritual decline from Yom Kippur. On the contrary, the “other-worldly” sanctity of Yom Kippur is absorbed in the “this-worldly,” tangible mitzvah of sukkah.
Our Sages debated which type of shofar is preferable – straight or bent – and finally ruled that a shofar should be bent. The reason for this is that during the High Holidays, we emphasize the spiritual, and the material must bow down before it. However, after this period of spiritual purification, we return to the physical, material world with the lulav in our hands. A kosher lulav, in contrast to the shofar, has to be straight. If it is bent or bowed, it is disqualified, for the lulav must stand upright in its sacredness.
What does Sukkot commemorate?
What it is that we commemorate on Sukkot. R. Eliezer claims that the huts in which we dwell on Sukkot represent the actual huts in which Am Yisrael dwelt in the desert. R. Akiva maintains that the huts symbolize the Clouds of Glory which hovered over Am Yisrael in the desert.³
The forty years that Am Yisrael spent in the desert after leaving Egypt were a difficult test indeed. The men, women and children were threatened by snakes and scorpions, and had to cope with insufficient water,⁴ unbearable heat during the day and biting frost at night.⁵ Meanwhile, they hungered for real bread as opposed to manna.⁶ These forty years of trials were God’s way of educating Am Yisrael to appreciate the good and overcome the bad, to be satisfied with their lot, and to view life with a balanced perspective. Commemorating that period of challenge and growth equips us with the ability to come to terms with the positive and the negative that we experience. Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed discusses the question of human suffering and divides it into three categories:
1.Troubles that are caused by nature, e.g., natural disasters and various illnesses. These affect a relatively small number of people. For the most part, people are healthy and do not become seriously ill or encounter natural disasters. 2. Troubles that people cause one another, e.g., war, murder and other criminal acts. In the two World Wars, close to 100 million people were killed. Even here, one can say that the majority of people in the world are not affected in such a way. 3. Troubles that one brings upon oneself. These are the trials that affect the majority of people. This category includes physical pain that is caused by unhealthy eating habits or an indulgent lifestyle. Also included is emotional distress that is caused by unfulfilled expectations. We convince ourselves that we need a particular thing and that we can’t live without it. When this happens, we feel acutely miserable, which leads us to challenge God with such theological questions as: “Why did you do this to me? Why is there so much suffering in the world?” From this perspective, we can see that most of the suffering we feel is unnecessary. A person experiences much pain because of imagined desires and distorted expectations of life. The essential ingredients that one needs for daily life can generally be found within reach: air to breathe is free; water to drink is very inexpensive; food sufficient to sustain life is easily attained. The more vital the need, the greater its accessibility and readiness for consumption. The less critical the need, the less accessible and more expensive that item becomes.⁷ The forty years of hardship in the desert were part of God’s plan to educate His nation. From our point of view, those forty years were a punishment for the Sin of the Spies; had we not sinned, we would have entered Eretz Yisrael immediately. However, what seems to us to be “after the fact” – an unexpected result of an undesirable choice – is “before the fact” to God. Rambam concludes that God’s plan – causing us to stay so long in the hostile desert – was designed to teach us to appreciate the good in life and to be grateful for what we have been given.⁸
The lesson of courage.
Our arduous life in the desert also trained us to be courageous. From a nation of weak, fearful slaves, we emerged a nation of fighters. When Am Yisrael saw the Egyptians pursuing them after leaving Egypt, they panicked and cried to Moshe, “Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you have to take us to the desert to die?! Why did you take us out of Egypt?”⁹ The commentator, Ibn Ezra, asks the following question: “The Israelites numbered 600,000 armed soldiers. Why didn’t they defend themselves against the Egyptians?” He explains that a slave is used to following his master’s orders and lacks the courage to oppose him. The entire generation was incapable of standing up to the Canaanites. They therefore all had to die in the desert. Difficult trials strengthen character, as opposed to “the good life” which, in excess, spoils people and weakens their ability to cope. The suffering in the desert was for our own good, as the verse says, “In order to try you and to test you, to benefit you at the end.”¹⁰ These tests prepared us and nurtured within us the strength of character that enabled us to fight during the conquering of Eretz Yisrael and during the other struggles that have been our lot over the years. One could argue: We, the descendants of that generation, weren’t in the desert and weren’t tested with those difficulties. What relevance and benefit do their challenges have for us today? Just as a person can go through a powerful experience that has a great impact upon him or her, and will remain indelibly imprinted memory on a personal level, so, too, are there experiences that are forever engraved in our national psyche, so that subsequent generations and individuals still perceive them and feel their influence.
Clouds of Glory
The Divine Clouds of Glory surrounded and guided us through all the years we spent in the desert, as it says, “According to God’s word they encamped, and according to God’s word they traveled.”¹¹ All our comings and goings were mandated by the Clouds of Glory. But were they really necessary? Isn’t the whole world a witness to the Creator?¹² It is true that all of creation proclaims God’s glory,¹³ but there are varying degrees in the revelation of God’s grandeur in creation. Mankind created in God’s image manifests a more refined level of God’s glory than does the rest of creation, but the pinnacle of God’s revelation in the world is through Am Yisrael. God’s presence was revealed through us in the desert, hovering over us in all our nomadic wanderings. He did not abandon us to drift in the desert; rather, the traveling was part and parcel of Divine Providence, as it says, “According to God’s word they encamped, and according to God’s word they traveled.” The Clouds of Glory were the means by which God led us, watched over us and protected us. This is so despite all our sins during those forty years in the desert: the Golden Calf, the Sin of the Spies, the complaining, the promiscuity with the daughters of Moab, and so on. We have to know that notwithstanding our transgressions, God is always with us, as it says, “Who dwells with them amidst their impurity.”¹⁴ Whether we realize it or not, Divine providence continually guides us and watches over us. Just as the Clouds of Glory were manifest yet also hazy, unclear, hidden and incomprehensible,¹⁵ so is it hard for us today to discern the hand of God in everything that happens. There is much that we don’t understand. The Torah itself was given in fog.¹⁶ Just as the Torah contains some passages that we understand and others that are shrouded in mist, so, too, at times it is clear that God’s hand is guiding our history, and at other times it is not. At times, the Divine handwriting is clear upon the wall; at others, it is hazy and illegible.¹⁷ Who can fathom the Holocaust? Even with all the books, articles and explanations proffered, we are incapable of comprehending the facts, let alone the reasons behind it. On the one hand we see in our days Divine guidance clearly revealed in the return to Zion, the building up of the Land, the establishment of the State and the miraculous military victories over our foes. But on the other hand, we are faced with threats from our enemies without, and even deep internal strife within. Many Jews are estranged from a life of Torah and mitzvot, and we often wonder if this is what we have prayed for throughout the generations. We need not worry; even these situations are part of God’s carefully determined plan. Though the secrets of Divine Providence are hard to grasp, we are not exempt from making an effort to perceive God’s hand in the world. Ultimately, we must realize that the Clouds of Glory are always surrounding us, even in times of sin and suffering, whether we clearly see the hand of God or not. In summary, the reason R. Elazar gives for the mitzvah of sukkah – that it commemorates the actual booths in which we lived in the desert – with all the lessons we learn from that, is a practical, human explanation. The reason R. Akiva gives for this mitzvah, that it commemorates the Clouds of Glory (i.e., God’s guidance at all times), is a spiritual explanation. There is no contradiction between the two. One can explain a phenomenon on two levels, either according to obvious, logical causes or according to God’s hand that is working from afar. Divine Providence acts in our history in a tangible direct way,¹⁸ just as the Clouds of Glory are revealed when we sit in actual booths.
A time to rejoice.
The holiday of Sukkot is also known as a time of rejoicing and happiness. Our forty years in the desert taught us to be happy with our portion in life and to overcome difficulty. We learned how to put into perspective the challenges, the difficulties, and the suffering in our lives, and how to accept our lot without being weakened or broken by it. We are capable of withstanding the test: every year we leave the comfort and security of our homes to live in huts for a week – with no complaint. We realize that God’s Clouds of Glory envelop us and that the Master of the World is always with us, and this knowledge keeps us from becoming disheartened and pessimistic. Our forty difficult years of living in huts in the desert strengthened us. With this historic memory indelibly engraved in our national psyche, no difficulty can deter us. We are confident that only good will come from the challenges we face. We are happy and optimistic. Today, too, our faith in God and confidence in His beneficial Providence colors our outlook on life. We have seen Am Yisrael reborn in our lifetime. Clearly, we have economic, political, ethical, and spiritual problems – but these are only fragments of a bigger picture. We must look at the course of history over the past century. Our rebirth is a continuous process. It began over a century ago, and may take many more centuries, but one thing is certain: it is the process of the Redemption of Am Yisrael.
It is an important principle in education that one cannot attempt to instill every value at once, for this would create confusion. Rather, we have to stick to priorities, to the most important values and beliefs, and constantly strengthen them. In our generation, the most central spiritual value is belief in the Redemption in our day. Our very belief in God rests upon our belief in the Redemption, for belief in God means that we trust that God is in charge of everything that happens in history. The belief that the history unfolding before our eyes today is a revelation of God’s Will reinforces our faith in God and our acceptance of His sovereignty over all events, past, present and future. In other words, the key to strengthening all of Am Yisrael’s faith in God is to educate towards faith in the Divine Providence which guides us today.
The Mitzvah of serving God with joy.
The aim of the Torah is not to prevent us from living and enjoying our lives to the fullest. On the contrary, the Torah emphasizes, “And you, who cling to the Lord your God, you are all alive here today.”¹⁹ It is “here,” living in this world, that we cling to God. The verse speaks to “all” of us, not just to the very righteous. And it refers to “today,” not to the End of Days. Failure to rejoice in the service of God is cause for punishment, as it is written, “Since you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a full heart when you had everything, you shall [be punished and] serve your enemy.”²⁰ True, you did serve God, but you brought exile upon yourselves because of your lack of joy in that service. Rambam, in his discussion of the mitzvah of joy on Sukkot, teaches us the following general principle regarding the service of God: The happiness with which one performs mitzvot, and the love one feels for the One who commanded us to do them, is in itself a vital service of God. Anyone who does not allow himself to rejoice deserves to be punished, as it is written, “Since you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a full heart.”²¹ It is not only the mitzvah which is important, but also the manner in which one carries it out. One should, ideally, take pleasure in the fulfillment of mitzvot.
There once was a convert who was asked by the Sages why he wanted to become Jewish. He answered: “The Jewish religion requires not only the body to be involved in fulfilling mitzvot, but also the heart and the soul. That is what makes it such a noble faith.” We are not asked to fulfill the mitzvot grudgingly, feeling coerced and obligated. Rather, God wants us to rejoice in our service of Him, to feel fulfilled while carrying out His mitzvot. Admittedly, it is no small feat to mobilize our intellectual, emotional and spiritual faculties to a complete identification with Torah and mitzvot. Is service of God a joy or an obligation? The principle that service of God needs to be performed with joy needs further clarification. Is the Jewish ideal to be happy and to enjoy life, or is it to fulfill our obligations and do what is required of us? The Greek philosopher Epicure turned the pursuit of pleasure into an ideal. It is true that he advocated enjoying life in a refined, measured manner – so as not to cause suffering to anyone – but his goal was simply to maximize pleasure. An Epicorus, or disciple of Epicure, is the term used by the Sages to describe a Jew whose philosophy of life contradicts Judaism. The Jewish ideal is not to pursue pleasure, but rather to do what is good in God’s eyes, even when this doesn’t make us happy – and even saddens us. Similarly, we reject the temptation to sin, no matter how pleasurable it may seem. This sharpens the question as to what the Torah means by wanting us to serve God with joy. On the contrary, it seems that our service of God should be based solely upon our desire to discharge our obligations. On the face of it, one who derives pleasure from performing the mitzvot is doing so for personal fulfillment and not for the sake of Heaven. Service of God, then, becomes merely a means of self-gratification.
Let us look to interpersonal relationships in order to illuminate the principle of fulfilling the mitzvot with joy. A husband says to his wife: “Am I not a good husband? I do all the shopping, help you in the house, and fulfill all my marital obligations. True, I don’t love you and I feel depressed living in this house with you, but I overcome my antipathy to you and I treat you well – because that’s what my mussar books tell me to do!” What a tzaddik! How would you feel if you were his wife? What difference does it make that he treats her nicely if his heart is elsewhere? Just as it is obvious that such an attitude in a husband to his wife, or in one friend to another, is degrading and of no value, so it is between us and God. Carrying out mitzvot without investing one’s heart and soul is akin to telling God: “Your mitzvot don’t interest me. They are a burden and I hate them. I’d rather do other things, but I have no choice; that is why I observe mitzvot. I love to eat non-kosher food and behave permissively, but I abstain. I hate my wife and other people, but I am commanded to treat them well, so I do. I am a disciplined soldier, a ‘Cossack’ in the service of God.” Is this the ideal approach? Absolutely not! There is something fundamentally lacking in one’s service of God if it is joyless. Granted, it is not always easy to serve God happily – sometimes it is harder than the mitzvah itself – but real service of God should not just be an external act of discharging one’s obligations, carried out against one’s true wishes, but service performed with love and inner identification. The feeling that should accompany the fulfillment of mitzvot should be harmony on all planes: intellect, emotion, imagination and desire.
Rejoicing in the mitzvot is connected to the Redemption.
Deep identification with the mitzvot of the Torah is the hope of the future. This is what our Sages meant when they said, “Mitzvot will be nullified at the time of the Redemption.”²² This means that we will keep all the mitzvot not because we are commanded to do so by a force external to ourselves, but rather because we choose to do so as a natural expression of our inner desires.²³ Already today, this has come partially true. For example, most of us are not murderers. Is this because the Torah forbids murder? No! It’s because we are not capable of murder; it goes against our nature. If one of us murders inadvertently, he or she is likely to die of anguish as a result. One can go so far as to say that the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder,” is completely superfluous for most of us today. As a result of thousands of years of instruction, this precept has become second nature. An explicit commandment is no longer necessary. So it will be with all the mitzvot. We hope to reach a point where, as a result of ongoing education, all the mitzvot become second nature, and we will fulfill them intuitively, without the need for instruction. This can be likened to an infant who nurses instinctively and has no need for lessons on the value of mother’s milk. The educational role played by the performance of mitzvot is not meant to foist upon us values which are incompatible with our nature. On the contrary, the mitzvot are intrinsically well-suited to us, and ultimately this truth will emerge from behind the veil which now it. Our Sages teach, “Had the mitzvot not been written in the Torah, we would have learned modesty from the cat, chastity from the dove,” and so on.²⁴ This teaches us that the mitzvot as desirable modes of behavior are an integral part of Creation, and even appear, to a certain extent, in the animal world. Likewise, the Sages teach that our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, observed the Torah in its entirety even before it was revealed.²⁵ How is this possible? It is because their sense of morality was so well-developed that they intuitively understood what they should and should not do. They fulfilled all the mitzvot naturally, requiring no explicit commandments.²⁶ We, today, have to understand that the mitzvot guide us towards our true inner nature that will be revealed in the World to Come. At that time, we will fulfill the mitzvot with joy and will experience a deep connection with them.