For most holidays, the Torah reading is the narration of the events the festival is commemorating. This past week’s Yom Kippur reading detailed the procedures for the special service in the Bais HaMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem). The Pesach reading recounts the Exodus from Egypt, and we read of the Revelation at Sinai on Shavuos. Succos, though, does not honor one particular event, so the reading comes from Parshas Emor, where all of the holy days are discussed in the middle of a narration of numerous facets of Divine service.
“On the fifteenth day of [Tishrei] is the festival of Succos, a seven day period for Hashem.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:34). It is noteworthy that the Torah calls this holiday “Succos” (plural of succah) but has not, at this point, explained why a succah is germane to the celebration. It is not until the end of the narrative, even after the discussion of the mitzvah of the Four Species, in verses 42 and 43, that it is related, “You shall dwell in booths (“succos”) for a seven day period…So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt.” If our observance of dwelling in booths is the focus of the festival, these closing verses are out of place; they should be at the opening.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986; Rosh Yeshiva/Dean of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem in New York City; the leading Halachic/Jewish legal decisor and foremost leader of Torah Jewry of his time) explains that the concept of “succah” – living in a transient, temporary abode – is not novel to the Jew. Essential to our faith is the precept that our daily existence in this world is given to us as our chance to perfect our spiritual selves and develop a G-d consciousness by utilizing mitzvah opportunities and studying Torah. Furthermore, since the physical trappings of our existence in this world are given to us as aids to achieving our spiritual objectives, there should be no discomfort when we spend money or utilize assets for the fulfillment of mitzvos or giving of charity; this is ultimately why we were given these assets!
Therefore, concludes Rabbi Feinstein, the concept of “succos” is not new, as it is lived everyday, no matter where we find ourselves. The festival of Succos was given to us to help concretize and fortify this tenet in a practical, substantive way.
This understanding also offers a deeper insight as to why we are forbidden from residing in the succah when it is extremely uncomfortable, such as when it is raining or very cold. If the essence of the succah is to teach the perspective to be maintained through our daily lives – which includes the mindset that our assets should never be the cause for a sense of discomfort because they are all a temporary means to a greater end – then that lesson cannot be learned when the succah is physically uncomfortable.
The famed Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan of Radin; 1838-1933; author of basic works in Jewish law, philosophy and ethics and renowned for his saintly qualities) once welcomed a visitor into his home. The visitor was somewhat surprised to see the Spartan conditions in which this renowned leader of Torah Judaism lived, with only a simple wooden table and some benches furnishing the main room of the simple house. When asked what bothered him, the guest blurted out, “Where is your furniture?” Rabbi Kagan responded, “Where is yours?” The visitor answered, “I am only a guest here. I didn’t bring any furniture.” To which the Chofetz Chaim replied, “I, too, am only a guest in this world. My most prized possessions, my Torah learning and mitzvos, are waiting for me in my real home in the World to Come.”
Our liturgy refers to the festival of Succos as “the time of our happiness”. After the teshuva (return to G-d) of the month of Elul, the recognition of G-d as our Father and King on Rosh HaShanah and the spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur, we now have seven days to enjoy and revel in our new relationship with our Father in Heaven. The blessings we asked for on the High Holy Days are not an end to themselves. The succah reminds us that we must not to become distracted by the temporal; we must keep our focus on our ultimate objective of building the bond.
Good Shabbos and Good Yom Tov!
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Pinchas Avruch and Project Genesis, Inc.
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