Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 7 October 2017 / 17 Tishri 5778

The Succah, a Temporary Home

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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There is a well known principle in Jewish thought that explains how a name always expresses its possessor’s essence. By studying the depth behind a name, a person can glean an understanding of the spiritual nature of that which bears the name. Similarly, the names of the holidays reflect their core (Michtav M’Eilyahu II p.17). Based on this idea we should analyze why the holiday of Succot is named for the mitzvah of dwelling in the succah instead of the mitzvah of the arbah minim (“four spicies” — etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow). In what way does the name Succot encapsulate the essence of this holiday?

The commentaries say that one way to make teshuva last is by getting to the underlying reason for committing the transgression, and thereby attack the problem at its root. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: What is the underlying root of all sins? The Talmud teaches that a person only sins because a spirit of foolishness entered him (Sotah 3a). The reason for this is because a person is choosing the trivial and temporary pleasures of this world when committing a sin, over the permanent and indescribable pleasures of the World-to-Come. No one in his right mind would make such a decision. However, the yetzer hara magnifies the pleasures of this world, while making us forget about the World-to-Come, so that we may sin. The gemara calls this trickery a spirit of foolishness, and is the underlying cause of all sins. This implies that our tendency to forget this world’s transience is the root of sinning.

On Yom Kippur, the day when the soul speaks louder than the body, we see the temporary nature of this world clearly, and we thus make all sorts of resolutions to change ourselves for the better. However, with the passage of time we forget the lesson of Yom Kippur. As we go further away from Yom Kippur the body begins to speak louder and louder, to the point that we choose the pebbles of this world over the diamonds of World-to-Come. The mitzvah of dwelling in the succah is meant to make the clarity of Yom Kippur last (see the Chida’s Simchat Haregel, Succot 1). How is this so?

The Alshich explains that every soul is taken from its permanent home in the spiritual world to a temporary home in this physical world at birth, to accomplish its unique task. Once its job is done, the soul is removed from this temporary dwelling, back to its permanent home in the World-to-Come (Torat Moshe on Vaykra 23:33). Throughout the course of the year, people often forget that the physical world is only a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself. By leaving our seemingly permanent homes for seven days and dwelling in the temporary succah we put our bodies in a state where the dilemma of the soul can be felt, which left its permanent spiritual home and entered this temporary physical world. This mitzvah, therefore, reminds us of the fact that our stay here in the physical world is a temporary one. This is one message behind the mitzvah of succah.

If we carry the message of dwelling in the succah with us throughout the year it would be much easier to live up to our own moral standards. When the yetzer hara tempts us to sin we should remind ourselves not to give up our permanent lives in the World-to-Come for the fleeting and temporary ones in this physical world. This is the only way to fight the yetzer hara. Perhaps this is the depth behind the custom of beginning to build the succah immediately after breaking the fast of Yom Kippur (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 624:5 & 625:1). The succah, with its message of the transience of this world, is the perfect way to begin anew following Yom Kippur.

To what extent does this idea go? It is told about the Chafetz Chaim that he was once visited by a high-standing official. Upon seeing the Chafetz Chaim’s humble home, the official asked him where all of his belongings were. The Chafetz Chaim responded by asking where the official’s belongings were.

The official replied, “But I am only a visitor, passing through the city. All my furniture and possessions are in my home.”

The Chafetz Chaim responded, “Ah, so am I just a visitor, passing through this world. All my real possessions, which are much more valuable than anything I could ever own here, are waiting for me in the World-to-Come.”

The Chida suggests that this may also be a reason why we read Megillat Kohellet on Succot. In Kohellet, Shlomo HaMelech, who owned nearly every physical possession of any value or worth, speaks of the transience of this world. Its main lesson is that pursuing the physical will never satisfy a person’s spiritual soul, as in the statement in the Midrash that no one dies with even half of his wishes fulfilled (Kohellet Rabbah 1:34). This is the perfect message for the holiday of Succot.

We can now address the question of why the holiday of Succot is named after the mitzvah of sitting in a succah and not after the arbah minim The Alshich explains that since the lesson we gain from dwelling in the succah is so fundamental, it becomes the primary theme of the holiday (Torat Moshe on Vaykra 23:33). It is this mitzvah and the ideas behind it that can help us carry our teshuva into the new year.

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