September 17, 2013

Sukkot seems to present a paradox. In our prayers, Sukkot is referred to as Zman Simhatenu – the “Season of Our Joy.” One would think that joy includes all of the physical comforts in life. Yet one of the main commandments of Sukkot is to build and live in a modest, temporary structure called a “Sukkah.” We are commanded to celebrate this joyous festival specifically by leaving the comfort of our homes.

Rabbi Yitshak Arama (Spanish Talmudist/Philosopher, 1420-1494) offers a deep insight as to the symbolism of dwelling in a Sukkah during Zman Simhatenu:

On Sukkot, everyone leaves behind his money matters, merchandise and produce, and all of his material possessions, and goes into a tiny booth which contains nothing but the meal for one day and usually nothing more than a bed, table, chair and lamp. This serves as a remarkable reminder for us not to indulge in building imposing structures, impressing on us that the minimum is all that we need during our temporary stay in this physical structure called planet earth, which is also a temporary abode. The minimum area for a Sukkah, seven handbreadths square and ten high, indicates a life of modesty and frugality. It is as if the halakha here is teaching us: limit yourself to the minimum, and do not aspire to luxury. If you accustom yourself to frugality, you will never lack anything; whereas if you allow yourself too many luxuries, you will feel as if you never have enough.

Rabbi Arama’s teaching brings to mind the timeless principle taught by Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:

Eizehu ashir? Ha-Sameach B’helko.
Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot in life.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)

By dwelling in a Sukkah during a weeklong festival of joy, we are reminded that happiness is not measured by the size of a home or the luxurious furnishings within it; rather, life is ultimately about the inner joy that one feels in his or her heart. Sukkot teaches us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment, and any other substantive features of life that go beyond material possessions. Life measured exclusively in material wealth, large buildings, bank accounts, zip codes, automobiles and financial status is a life void of meaning. As Rabbi Aramah teaches, life with too many luxuries builds a mentality that “this is not good enough, I need the better one.” Think about how we spend thousands of dollars on electronic products – phones, tablets and laptops – and just a few short months later, when the newer model comes out, we are convinced that the one we have is no longer good, and we must “upgrade.” Sukkot challenges us to think differently.

Dwelling in a Sukkah also reminds us that life is temporary, and that we must learn to value our time here on earth. Dwelling in a Sukkah reminds us of the frailty of life. Much like a sudden, unexpected gust of wind can knock our Sukkah down, so, too, can our situation in life change so quickly. Sukkot is a time when we are reminded to appreciate our lives, and to thank God and those who surround us for the blessings we may have. In this minimal structure of temporary walls and a roof of palm fronds, we are called upon to celebrate life, be thankful for what we have, and enjoy every moment.

A Kabbalistic tradition teaches that as part of the expression of celebrating life, it is a mitzvah on Sukkot to invite guests into our Sukkah. On each night, in addition to any family or friends, we also invite and welcome the Shiva Ushpizin, the “Seven Guests,” each of which joins us on a different night of Sukkot: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.

In the spirit of what Sukkot teaches us about life, perhaps we should invite one more symbolic guest — Abraham Lincoln — who had a very profound teaching about life, one that is most definitely applicable to our dwelling in joy in a Sukkah:

“It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

Hag Sukkot Sameach and Moadim L’Simha.

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