Sukkot stories: Some lessons from this most joyous of holidays

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist

Chol Hamoed Sukkot

This Shabbos we find ourselves in the intermediate days of the holiday of Sukkot. It is a custom that each night we invite into our Sukkah a guest (Ushpizin) from amongst our Patriarchs, to “share” our evening meal. Over the years I have accumulated articles on aspects of Sukkot from several authors, and have the custom to “invite them in” to share their insights by re-reading their columns, one each night.  So here I would like to share a few.

The first, by Joshua Gutoff, appeared in an article in a 2004 Jerusalem Report issue, discussing a Mishnah from the tractate Sukkot (42B). He writes: “when the Temple was still standing, the lulav was used on the first day of the festival, even if it fell on the Sabbath. To avoid carrying, people would bring their lulavim to the Temple on Friday afternoon and leave them there (in a pile). When they returned the next day, the Temple workers would toss from the pile of lulavim to the crowd. If you could not find your own, that was alright, because each person had made a declaration the day before that if someone else found your lulav, he could have it as a gift. That was the way it was supposed to work. What actually happened was that each year a small riot broke out, with each person pushing the other out of the way trying to get the ‘best’ one. Now here is the truly amazing part: the rabbis responded by stopping the practice altogether.”

He explains: “What had been understood as a part of the Biblical mandate as laid out in Leviticus, and what had undoubtedly been an extraordinary powerful spiritual experience, was banned by the rabbis. Why? Because it led to violence, it led to danger…the importance the early Sages placed on the minute details of festival observance…the rabbis of the Talmud understood was not the be-all and end-all of Jewish practice…because in observing one value the people had come to subvert a value far more important. The rabbis knew that a devotion to practice did not make one into a mensch, that observance and piety are different words. Worshiping G-d as the Bible demands in the holiest site on Earth is important, but not when it leads to violence.”

The second, by Benyamin Cantz, appeared in the journal “Sh’ma” in 1990, and begins: “The rabbis say that everything that exists on earth has a spiritual counterpart in heaven. For example, in the tfillin that a Jew wears on both head and hand there are passages in the Torah that tell how close G-d is to the Jewish people. And the rabbis say that G-d, too, has tfillin, and that in His tfillin are passages which say how close to Him the Jewish people are. I thought of this during Sukkot and wondered: perhaps in a spiritual sense G-d also has a Sukkah. And if He does, I asked myself, what does He use for s’chach, the roof over the top?”

He continues: “Our s’chach is actually refuse (from our garden growth) that gets used for accomplishing the mitzvah of building a thatched hut during the holiday…Perhaps G-d’s s’chach is also refuse, but refuse from our (personal) growth. During Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we confess our sins, blunders and blindness before G-d. We aim to repair these mistakes and refine ourselves. The rabbis say that in the effort to transform ourselves into better people by turning from sin and doing t’shuvah, each sin becomes a stepping stone and can be counted for good. Each sin is raised up from the lowly place of its origin to a position of honor, for albeit in a roundabout and unintentional way, it too has brought us closer to G-d. Perhaps the husks and refuse used for s’chach on top of G-d’s Sukkah are the sins we have discarded. As we collect old vines from the vineyard, G-d collects those sins that, during Yom Kippur, we were able to cut from their vital root by confession and true regret. Perhaps G-d raises up all this refuse and places it on His Sukkah as a sign that the Jewish people have fulfilled the covenant of the Torah, not only through mitzvahs, which are, so to speak, G-d’s harvest, but by using their sins to transform the world and themselves for good. The uglier and lowlier the sin that was transformed to good during Yom Kippur, the more simcha it adds to G-d’s Sukkah. We sing and drink our wine in the shade of the discarded vines and G-d sits beneath the refuse of his vineyard joyously making l’chaim’s with us. And as He does, delighting in the harvest, He looks up through the cuttings of the previous year and sees them as blessings.”

And finally, a thought shared by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, from an article in the Jerusalem Post 2011:  “Reb Aryeh Levin of blessed memory was renowned as the ‘Tzaddik of Jerusalem’. He was known for his punctilious observance of each of the ritual commandments and his overwhelming passion for every human being. Two days before the advent of Sukkot he went to the Geula district of Jerusalem to choose his four Species. Immediately word spread and a large crowd gathered around him, (as many wanted to see with what care he chose his etrog, in order to emulate him in their choice). After all, the etrog is referred to in the Bible as a beautiful fruit and since we are enjoined to beauty the commandments, observant Jews are especially careful in purchasing a most beautiful and outstanding etrog…(yet for Rabbi Levin) the entire transaction took less than five minutes.”

After, Rabbi Riskin writes, Reb Aryeh walked into an old age home. He was followed by one of the crowd, wondering why the rabbi had spent so little time selecting an etrog, and why he was in a rush to visit the old age home. Upon his exit, the man kindly asked Rabbi Levin for an explanation: “Reb Aryeh took the man’s hand and smiled lovingly. My dear friend, he said, there are two mitzvot regarding which the Torah employs the term hadar (beautification), one is the mitzvah of the selecting a beautiful etrog (pri etz hadar-fruit of the beautiful tree…Leviticus 23:40) and the second is beautifying the face of the aged (vehadarta pnei zaken…Leviticus 19:32). However, the etrog is an object and the aged individual is a subject, a human being and not a fruit. Hence, I believe one must spend much more time in beautifying the commandment to the human being than beautifying the commandment to a fruit.”

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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