Monday, October 13, 2008

Spirit of the Law: Hilchos Sukkah

Hilchos Sukkah 134:1-2
1. “…It is a mitzvah incumbent on each person to exert himself personally to build his own sukkah and place the s’chach on it. Even if he is a distinguished person, he should not feel that this is beneath his dignity since performing the mitzvah of sukkah himself is a great honor…”

Building a sukkah must be done not only on a physical level but on a spiritual level as well, and the main way to accomplish this is through prayer. Rebbe Nachman teaches that we should pray for even the most minor-seeming physical need, and we should certainly pray to attain our far more important spiritual goals. There are really two main ways in which we engage in prayer: one is most accessible when we don’t have emotional energy and are in a “down” phase, while the second is more appropriate for when we are feeling spiritually healthy and “up.”

What is the first path like? Once, on the first night of Sukkos, Rav Nachman of Tulchin remarked to his mentor, Reb Nosson of Breslov, zt”l, “After working so hard today to build the sukkah, I feel able to taste much more of the holiness of the sukkah!”

Reb Nosson responded, “However, you still haven’t tried to cry out to Hashem the whole day, ‘Ribbono shel olam! Master of the universe! Please give me a taste of the true holiness of the Sukkah!’ Imagine what kind of taste in the mitzvah of sukkah you would be feeling after such a prayer!”[1] So the first way is to keep pleading with Hashem as much as I can: “Please give me a taste of the holiness of Sukkos!”

But the tool of prayer becomes so much more powerful when we learn more deeply about the meaning of the mitzvah, and then transform what we have learned into prayer. As Rebbe Nachman taught, this transformation generates the most lofty sha’ashuim, pleasure and joy, on High. To help us open our minds to the deeper levels inherent in the mitzvah, let’s contemplate a lesson from Likutei Halachos…

Reb Nosson explains that one of the purposes of sukkah is to internalize the imminence of Hashem even when we feel very distant from spirituality. This is why we are obligated to eat and sleep in our sukkah. (Admittedly, the custom is not to sleep in the sukkah outside of Israel for a variety of reasons. It is important to note however that a number of great Rabbonim and Tzaddikim slept in their Sukkos regardless. One luminary who slept in his sukkah regardless of the weather or the presence of hostile non-Jews was the Vilna Gaon). Now, as we all know, how we eat and how much we eat (or overeat!) is one of the main causes of our feeling distant from Hashem. Similarly, when we sleep, we are experiencing a mini-death, one that usually, and unfortunately, can make us feel further from Hashem as well. It is only a very unusual person who will feel connected to Hashem while eating and sleeping. Since the sukkah is a living space almost always far more vulnerable than our usual home, eating and sleeping in it is meant to help us feel greater closeness to Hashem while we are engaged in the mundane world and at our most vulnerable. It is this very vulnerability that underscores our great dependence on Hashem, our need to rely on Him and trust in His protection. While dwelling in the ‘shade of faith’ (tzilah d’meheimenusa, as the Zohar Hakadosh writes), our sukkos elevate the acts that cause us to feel distant from Hashem by their very nature.[2]

Many say that the Torah of Ishbitz and the teachings of Rav Tzaddok HaKohen, zt”l, are a kind of continuation of the concepts found in Likutei Halachos, and so it seems that a little interjection of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, zt”l, wouldn’t be out of place here…

The Mei Hashiloach, zt”l, explains that the true meaning of the mitzvah of sukkah is to, “…leave one’s permanent dwelling and reside in a temporary one.” We must leave behind our natural tendency to think that the physical world is an independent and fixed reality and realize instead that it is just a transient mask that conceals Hashem’s presence. This is not a mere intellectual exercise; we must feel that each new moment of existence for every single creation emanates directly from Hashem. This is the foundation of all Divine service.

During his younger years, the Beis Halevi, zt”l, learned in a designated room in his father-in-law’s house. His father-in-law, a chossid of Rav Moshe of Kovrin, zt”l, had agreed at the beginning of their relationship that he would never disturb his son-in-law’s study for any reason whatsoever.

Once, Rav Moshe came to visit at his follower’s home. Although the Beis Halevi’s father-in-law wanted his Rebbe to meet his son-in-law, he couldn’t see how it would be possible to introduce them since this would mean interrupting the Beis Halevi’s constant study. On the day his Rebbe was going to leave, Rav Moshe finally had an idea. He couldn’t interrupt his son-in law…but someone else could! When he noticed that the Beis Halevi had left his room for a moment, he placed Rav Moshe’s luggage inside.

When the Beis Halevi returned and resumed his study, the Rebbe knocked at the door. “What do you want?” the Beis Halevi asked.

“My bags are here. May I come in?”

The Beis Halevi was just then learning the final section of Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim. Rav Moshe asked, “What about the first subsection? Do you manage to fulfill it?”

The Beis Halevi answered, “I work on ‘shivisi Hashem linegdi samid’ (‘I will place Hashem before me always’) fifteen times a day. But I’m always troubled that although the Ramoh says that imagining being in the all-knowing presence of the King immediately fills a person with fear, it takes me time to feel it.”

The Rebbe explained, “That is because you are thinking with your head. Fear of heaven resides in one’s heart, and it takes time to reach from your head to your heart. That’s why the Ramoh says to, ‘…place it on his heart’—not on his head!’”

2. “…Regarding the walls of a sukkah, there are many complicated halachos which not everyone knows… For this reason, it is better to make a four-walled sukkah. If one can’t afford this, he should at least make a sukkah of three full walls…”

At the beginning of Maseches Sukkah, the Gemara teaches that one must have at least two walls and a tefach (handsbreadth) of a third wall that are at least ten tefachim high, and not higher than twenty amos (cubits). Since there are many complexities regarding how to arrange the walls, it is best to have at least three full walls. (It is even better to have four walls so that the wind should not shake the sukkah or extinguish the Yom Tov candles, as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch explains here.)

Two full walls and a third wall of a tefach width has a very special spiritual significance. The Arizal explains that in the verse, “His left arm is below my head, and His right arm embraces me,” (Shir HaShirim 2:6) the left alludes to the attribute of justice, and the right alludes to the attribute of mercy. This is why “the left arm” represents the Yomim Noraim, the season of judgment. Conversely, “the right arm” represents Sukkos, the embodiment of Hashem’s loving protection. We can see this love in the halachic parameters of a sukkah. While sitting within it, we dwell in the loving embrace of the Divine Presence. As we see from the Gemara, the Torah requires two proper walls while the third can have a width as small as a tefach. The two walls symbolize the upper segment of the arm and the forearm, and the remaining tefach represents the hand. This loving embrace is extended to every Jew, for Hashem’s “right arm” is always extended to accept the sincere repentance of any Jew, no matter what he or she might have done. Many gedolei Yisroel adopt a similarly forgiving attitude toward their fellow Jews, choosing to overlook their flaws and focus instead on the fact that we are all Hashem’s children, and all beloved to Him.

Rav Chaim Brim, zt”l, recounted that the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, zt”l, was once walking on Shabbos with his gabbai when they suddenly ran into a group of Jewish men, women, and children. The people were singing as they strolled, and as they passed, the Rebbe turned to his gabbai to forestall any comments. “Hush! Don’t say anything to them—they must be singing because they are enjoying the holy Shabbos.” Rav Chaim explained, “Now, if they really meant to rejoice in the holiness of Shabbos, why didn’t the gabbai see this himself? The truth is that their singing had nothing to do with kedushah at all. But the Belzer Rebbe could only see the good in other Jews. He silenced the gabbai because he didn’t want this spoiled by the other man’s interpretation of their behavior. He also meant to say, “Don’t say a word, they don’t know any better. How can you judge them? On the contrary—say as much good about them as possible!”

[1] Avaneha Barrzel

[2] Likutei Halachos, Hilchos Shabbos 7:54

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