Commentary: A modest proposal for Succot

The very act of waving our Lulav in all directions as we pray is a distinct lesson in tzniut; try not to spear the people all around you as you acknowledge God’s ever-presence.

311_succa in J'lem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
311_succa in J'lem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Each of the Jewish holidays has a specific emotion or mood attached to it. Pessah, for example, is marked by a kind of exhilaration.
The excitement and high energy that comes when one is given a new lease on life, the desire to celebrate with anyone and everyone.
This is perfectly appropriate for Passover, when we achieved our freedom and were liberated from bondage.
The Seder experience is one of unbridled song and revelry; our table full with guests and adorned with fine wines and fine china. Pessah, say our rabbis, is the one time during the year when a woman may “go all out” and wear all her most precious jewelry at once!
The High Holidays, in contrast, project a mood of contrition. We engage in sober self-examination, performing the painful task of confession as we confront our failings and foibles, aware of our limitations yet determined to forge a new and better relationship with God. We dress in white and do our best imitation of the Angels, yet we refrain from singing the Hallel, which would conflict with the seriousness of the occasion.
What, then, is the mood of Succot?
Some would suggest pride, or even triumphalism, is the operative adjective at work. After all, we have come out of Yom Kippur seemingly forgiven, the tension of atonement lifted off our shoulders. On an agricultural level, we are enjoying our harvest and living off the fat of our land. Some even liken the lulav and etrog to “weapons of war” that we carry with a kind of supreme confidence, like a victorious soldier just back from the wars.
This side of Succot is expressed in its liturgical appellation as, “the season of our simha.” Yet while accepting the joyousness that comes from success, Succot has another profound message and mood to project upon us: Modesty.
For if there is any one trait disdained by our spiritual teachers, it is arrogance and conspicuous conceit. “Pride goeth before the fall,” says the Book of Proverbs, and this final “leg” of the holiday season cries out for a strong shot of Humility.
I suggest that this is the reason we leave our permanent homes and retire to a humble, temporary, shaky abode for seven days. Not just to recall and simulate the pre-fabs of our ancestors as they moved through the desert, but to remind us – in stark, literal fashion – that the truest and firmest roof above our heads can only be that of the Almighty’s sheltering presence. The walls that dance in the wind, the organic covering which has a tendency to fall into our soup and the exposure to the elements outside combine to send the message that humanity is frail, victory is fleeting and life is anything but absolutely secure.
This may also be reflected in a subtle side of the Arba Minim, the four species we wave over Succot. The second law of thermodynamics defines the universal, inevitable tendency of all things to decay – a reality readily apparent to anyone trying to keep his willows fresh, or surveying his Etrog a week or two after the hag ends. Even the priciest Succot species is rendered lifeless and worthless in just over a week’s time; a reminder that man, for all his greatness and glory, is but a passing shadow in the scheme of things.
This seems also to be the central theme of the Book of Kohelet, traditionally read on Succot. Kohelet is a kind of moral tale, written by King Solomon, the wisest and one of the richest potentates in history. Solomon seemingly had it all and lived life to the fullest.
Yet, when all is said and done, the king looks back at all this largesse and declares, “Vanity of vanities – all is vanity!”
Material possessions and pleasures of the flesh, concludes Solomon, may not bring Man the prize he truly covets: contentment with his lot, and satisfaction with his role in the universe.
There is a lot of room for humility and modesty in today’s Israel.
Our society has made some staggering advances and achievements, and we are blessed with a standard of living and quality of life second to none. Yet that is precisely the time when we have to check our overconfidence and ground our fortune with a perspective on what truly matters in life.
As Solomon learns, after all the grandeur loses its glitter, wisdom, the love of one’s spouse and a connection to God are the real gold to be treasured.
The intimate closeness within our little succa – reminiscent of the small apartment couples share when their love is young – reminds us that bigger may not always be better.
One of the most popular buzzwords in religious circles today is tzniut.
It usually is applied to modest forms of dress – particularly for women – but in truth, it goes far beyond our clothes.
A humble person exudes modesty in every aspect of his behavior – how he talks, eats, prays, even how he drives.
Modesty means that just as not everything that can be worn should be worn, so not everything that can be said should be said.
It challenges us to respect the next person as much as we do ourselves and not invade their space, either by screaming into our cell phones when next to them in line or on the street, or honking incessantly when traffic doesn’t instantly flow our way.
The very act of waving our Lulav in all directions as we pray is a distinct lesson in tzniut; try not to spear the people all around you as you acknowledge God’s ever-presence.
The prophet Micha seems to best sum up the ideals of life, and of Succot, when he preaches the “bottom line” of elevated behavior: “What is good for man, what the Almighty seeks from him, is to do good, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;