The story is told of Sir Moses Montefiore, who visited a rabbi in Warsaw. The
rabbi had, at best, meager possessions.
When Montefiore entered the
house, he was surprised to find it empty except for a single chair. Montefiore
asked, “Where are your sofa, your pillows, pictures and carpets?” In response,
the rabbi asked his guest, “Where are yours?” Montefiore responded, “When I
travel, I am a guest. My furniture is at home.”
The rabbi answered, “I,
too, am sojourning in this world. My furniture is also waiting for me at
Not intending to put a damper on anyone’s holiday, it behooves
some of us to ask why Succot is called “zman simhateinu” (time of our
happiness). The succa is stifling during the day, cold and dank at night, bees
swarm in, and there isn’t really much room in the thatched pup tent. Top it off
with the exorbitant price we pay for a fancy stalk and lemon, not to mention the
chafed fingers and sore back that result from building the succa. Happy? Let’s
With only a kernel of understanding, however, we come to grasp
that joy is the essence of Succot and the raison d’etre of Shmini
Indeed, joy is the fundamental theme that is subtly woven
throughout the holiday.
“In huts you shall dwell for seven days; all
citizens of Israel shall live in huts” (Leviticus 23:42).
Soloveichik makes a distinction between an evolved understanding of simha and
its evil twin, hollelut (debauchery/foolish mirth).
There seems to be an
abundance of vacuous hilarity that surrounds our existence that is (spiritually)
diametrically opposite to the aforementioned definition of joy. While true simha
involves experiencing one’s inner self and reality, hollelut is escapism, trying
to delude ourselves about the here and now we should be embracing.
responsible for observing the mitzva of the succa? From a literal reading of the
text, it would appear that only citizens – not strangers – are included in the
mitzva of this holiday.
Yet Rashi, Ramban and others note that all
people, gerim vetoshavim (strangers and citizens), have an equal part in the
empowering commandment. Particularly noteworthy is the commentary of the
Rashban, who states that the “citizen” of Israel is mentioned to illustrate that
even someone with a home must leave his house and become “homeless.” The mitzva
of the succa helps develop a solidarity between the Jew with a comfortable
dwelling and a Jew who must wander without shelter.
The mitzva of gemilut
hessed (loving-kindness) is a two-pronged commandment.
On one hand, we
are instructed to do everything in our power to assist the needy, the forsaken.
This is basic hessed as we know it.
There are times, however, when our
practical assistance is impossible to provide. After all, we simply cannot
provide housing, food and clothing to all in need.
When positive hessed
is impractical, the Torah calls upon us to, minimally, empathize and attempt to
understand the plight of the unfortunate. When a citizen of Israel cannot
provide shelter for the stranger, he must at the very least show solidarity with
those in need. By identifying with those who do not have the same comforts that
we have, a bonding is more likely to occur. The stranger realizes that he can
proudly feel a part of Klal Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael while, at the same time,
the citizen looks to the past and sees that he, too, was once a stranger. “So
that your generations shall know that I placed the children of Israel in huts as
I took them out of Egypt.” The mitzva of the succa offers an opportunity to
level the playing field of the stranger and the citizen, reminding both that
they traversed the same road.
By extending our focus to this
interpretation of the mitzva, the essential value of hessed becomes clear.
Gritting one’s teeth while performing a mitzva (observing the letter of the law
but ignoring its spirit) is antithetical to the inherent principle. According to
Ravah, “Someone who is uncomfortable is exempt from the mitzva of succa”
(Talmud, Succa 26a).
Commentators ask why this mitzva, to the exclusion
of others, is based on comfort. The interpretation of hessed makes it
Someone who is pained while performing the mitzva of the succa
cannot show solidarity to feel compassion toward those for whom pain is a way of
life. The stranger/citizen illustration will simply foster resentment and, as a
consequence, the point of the mitzva will be lost.
For many of us, the
concept of joy might remain elusive but is clearer when explained thus by
Hillel: “If I am here, then everything and everybody is here; and if I am not
here, then who is here?” (Masechet Succa). This offers a keen observation of
what joy is all about, likened to Ben-Zoma’s well-known adage “Who is rich? He
who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot).
Joy is based in reality and how
you relate to your existence as inextricably linked with the rest of the world.
It is marked by the acceptance of yourself and your lot in life. When it comes
to joy, society’s grasp of real simha is as tenuous as their
“And you shall be happy in your holidays, you....the stranger,
the orphan.... and you shall be only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:13-14). The Torah
mandates happiness on the holiday of Succot.
We are taught that we must
bring joy and happiness into the lives of -- and identify with --the less
fortunate. It is the Rambam who indicates that when having your festival meal,
you must also provide for the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
true fulfillment of the mitzva of Succot in our times is to develop sensitivity
and solidarity with those who are less fortunate than we are and to make a
commitment to bring happiness to their lives.