Friday, October 10, 2003

Why do we sit in a succah?

A draft of a dvar torah from my days in Homiletics:

In Vayiqra perek chuf-gimmel posuk mem-gimmel, Hashem commands us to live in sukkot “Lema‘an yed‘u dorotekem ki bassukkot hosabti et bene yisra`el,” so that we should know that God caused the bene yisra`el to live in sukkot when they left Egypt. Thus, we sit in sukkot to remind us of a historical fact. We are used to the establishment of specific days to remember facts and events, some of which are important and defining for us as a nation, and the establishment of other days commemorating things that are not so important. For example, as Americans, we celebrate Columbus Day to celebrate the man who discovered the New World. We celebrate the 4th of July as a national independence day. There are also official holidays such as National Pickle Week and Groundhog Day. On the surface, it would seem that the historical event of the Jews sitting in sukkot that we are commemorating is not so important. We dwell in sukkot because our ancestors dwelled in sukkot. We also ate quail in the wilderness. Why don’t we have a National Quail Awareness Week? However, Sukkot is one of the shalosh regalim, one of the more important holidays. What, then, is the significance of the Jews having sat in sukkot, and why is it so important?

Rambam, in Moreh Nebuchim, section 3, chapter 43, explains that the purpose of sitting in the succah is to remind man during times of plenty of the days of deficiency. This increases our hakarat hatov, or gratefulness, to Hashem, who brought us to good fortune, and increases our humility by recalling what we came from and where we would be if not for Hashem. On Pesach, we eat matzoh and marror to recall the days when we were slaves, contrasting to today when we are free. Similarly, on Sukkot, we leave our houses and sit in booths in the manner of toilers, who dwell in deserts and forests, to recall that this was our situation in days of old, as the pasuk says, “ki bassukkot hosavti et bene yisra`el.” From that situation in the wilderness, God brought us into the land of Israel, to dwell in houses in the best of lands. Thus, by dwelling in sukkot, we recall our previous lack and appreciate Hashem’s beneficence for causing our current bounty.

In contrast, Ramban states that the remembrance is of all the *good* that Hashem did for us in the wilderness. The sukkot in which the Jews dwelled, even according to pshat, or the simple meaning of the text, were not actual booths but rather ‘anane Hakkabod, Clouds of Glory, with which Hashem protected us in the midbar. Thus, the hakarat hatob is for past help that God provided us, and not to recall any lack that we had in the midbar. Ramban also considers the possibility that the sukkot in which the Jews dwelled were actual booths. Thus, the festival of Sukkot is held in the beginning of winter. A people encamping in the desert, when the weather turns cold, will build sukkot for protection, so we are building the sukkot when the generation of the wilderness would have done so. The Jews in the desert did not build cities, but dwelt in tents and booths. Even so, Hashem provided for all of their needs. This is why we sit in sukkot – we remember that the Jews sat in Sukkot – they sat in temporary dwellings, and we would think that they would not be well off, but God took care of them. Thus, sitting in sukkot is still to recall with gratitude Hashem’s help to the Jews in the midbar, and to ingrain within us Hashem’s hashgochah.

Rav Shamshon ben Rafael Hirsch says has a position similar to that of the Ramban. He maintains that there was something intrinsic in living in the physical booths in the wilderness that demonstrated God’s providence, in which He provided the Jews with food and shelter for 40 years, and sitting in the succah is reminiscent of that providence. Both the rich person who has a comfortable dwelling and a poor person must live in the succah – firstly, to show that we are not doing this because we are homeless, but rather because it is a mitzvah. Secondly, sitting in the succah reminds the wealthy that their parnossah comes from Hashem, and reminds the poor that they should seek their parnossah from Hashem, just as in the wilderness all protection and parnossah was provided by Hashem.

A mashal to explain the Rambam is: A man lives a life of poverty. He is homeless and begs for money to buy food. His only shelter from the elements is a tattered and dirty trench coat. One night, he has a dream, in which Eliyahu hanavi appears to him and tells him of some buried treasure and tells him to invest it in Intel stock. He wakes, finds the money buried where Eliyahu told him it would be, invests the money, and becomes a millionaire overnight. Every year, on the anniversary of his dream, he would throw a huge party for his friends and family, and would put on his tattered and dirty coat. Several years later, during the party, his son asked him, “Father, you have all of these wonderful clothes and all of this wealth. Why do you wear that tattered coat to the party?” He answered, “many years ago, I was poverty-stricken and all that I had was this coat. Wearing this coat reminds me from whence I came and reminds me how much my fortunes have changed for the better as a result of Hashem’s help. This reminds me that without Hashem’s help, I would be nothing.”

Chasidish story: A malamud worked for a bal habos for a zman, and during this time the bal habos built an expensive mansion, and there was a big simcha as they made a housewarming party. The malamud was as joyous as anyone in the household. The bal habos asked the malamud – why are you so happy – after all, your stay here is only temporary. You don’t own this house. The malamud replied – and you, is your stay permanent?
This is another significance to succah. We leave our permanent residence and reside for 7 days in a temporary residence. This is to make us realize that even our stay in our permanent house is temporary – the period of our life. We can tie this in to the pasuk – so your generations should know, even in times of plenty, that I sat your forefathers in sukkot, temporary dwellings, because that is not the purpose of life. – to get nice dwellings, but rather to serve God.

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