By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Last year, a friend was flying to New York from Israel for Sukkos. Like so many other passengers on the packed plane, he was bringing esrogim with him. Six of them to be exact. When he arrived at customs control, he handed in the requisite form, which he had filled out to the best of his ability. The customs agent looked at the form and asked him, “Do you have any fruit with you?”
“No,” he answered.
“Do you have an esrog?” the agent asked.
“Yes. In fact, I have six of them,” my friend said.
“So why,” asked the agent, “when I asked if you were carrying fruit, did you say no?”
“I never thought of an esrog as a fruit,” my friend responded in all honesty. “An esrog is an esrog!”
The agent, recognizing the man’s sincerity, proceeded to examine one of the esrogim. Upon ascertaining that it was clean of fruit flies, he allowed the gentleman through with his esrogim.
The story is cute and may even cause you to chuckle a bit, but it contains much truth and carries a deeper meaning.
Sukkos is referred to as Zeman Simchaseinu. A question that is pondered year after year is why the Yom Tov of Sukkos is referred to as our time of joy. What is special about the holiday of Sukkos that the Torah refers to it as the time of happiness? We are joyous on every Yom Tov. We are happy most of the year. What is it about Sukkos that creates so much joy amongst the Jewish people?
The mitzvos that we perform on this Yom Tov contribute to the joy. Rare are the mitzvos for which people go to all ends to fulfill their obligation like we find regarding the mitzvos of Sukkos. Jews spend hours and hours searching for the most beautiful and mehudardike Daled Minim.
Sukkos may be the holiday of simcha because it demonstrates that we humans have the ability to transform the mundane into the spiritual. Our lives have meaning because our actions can bring about holiness. We are not merely animalistic creatures, who spend their time foraging for food and a comfortable place to sleep, for we are granted intelligence and the ability to speak. We are masters of the universe. Everything we do has the ability to affect the entire world. When we do a mitzvah, we strengthen the world. We raise ourselves and we raise the level of the keili we are using to perform the act of the mitzvah.
On Sukkos, we take a simple fruit and turn it into a cheftzah shel mitzvah with so many deep spiritual meanings that we don’t even remember that it is a fruit. We take a simple, inanimate object such as a citron, which most of the world has no use for, and we literally transform it into the most prized of the Daled Minim. We spend fortunes on it and wrap it carefully before placing it in an ornate silver box.
We are overcome with joy when we finally find the esrog we were searching for, and we are then confident that we will be able to complete the mitzvah to the best of our ability. Perhaps more than any other mitzvah object, the esrog is handled with such pride and joy because it shows us that if we have the proper frame of mind, we can reach the heavens with the simple act of holding a fruit.
We do the same with the lulav, hadasim and aravos. On the first day of Yom Tov, we march with them to shul, demonstrating our joy that we were found virtuous during the yemei hadin and are prepared to live life on a higher plane. We are no longer creatures of the yeitzer harah, viewing everything in creation as tools for physical gratification. We recognize that our mission here is to serve Hashem by utilizing the goodness with which He surrounds us.
We begin with the esrog and the Daled Minim and continue with the sukkah itself. We collect items that grow from the ground and are not mekabeil tumah and place them atop a few walls. We thus fashion for ourselves another vehicle with which to raise our level of spirituality to that of anshei Elokim, G-dly people. We leave our year round abode and enter a temporary structure, enveloping ourselves in the tzilah demehemnusah, the shadow of the Shechinah. We utilize ordinary everyday objects as tools to achieve this state of G-dliness. We thus become filled with joy. We make a bracha on the sukkah and thank Hashem for keeping us alive so that we can enjoy this special moment, basking in the glory of Hashem.
The Gemara in Maseches Sukkah (9a) derives from the korban chagigah that just as a korban becomes sanctified when the makriv says, “Korban laShem,” so too, the walls and covering of the sukkah become sanctified and forbidden for mundane use for the duration of the Yom Tov of Sukkos.
The Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 1:4) teaches that the sukkah alludes to the status of Klal Yisroel after Moshiach’s arrival, at which time we will all sit betzilah demehemnusah, as we did while we traveled through the desert on our way to The Promised Land. Much the same as the sukkah symbolizes the Mishkan in the midbar where the Shechinah dwelled, so too does it symbolize the Shechinah’s return to the rebuilt Bais Hamikdosh.
The Maharal, in his Shabbos Hagadol drasha, writes along similar lines and states that it is in the merit of the Yom Tov of Sukkos that the Third Bais Hamikdosh will be built to house the Shechinah.
This theme, that the sukkah is reminiscent of the construction of a resting place for the Shechinah, is taken to a much higher level by the Zohar (Vol. 3, 103a), who states that when a Jew sits in a sukkah, he basks in the shadow of the Shechinah – betzilah demehemnusah.
These ideas are not just allegorical and homiletic, but real and tangible. The Kav Hayoshor (95) states that the reason we are careful to keep the sukkah clean and to ensure that our behavior there is refined and proper is for this very reason: the sukkah is a home for the Shechinah and is a mikdash me’at.
With that in mind, how can we not be joyous on Sukkos? We place four temporary walls together and cover them with a leaky roof, leaving us with an unheated and unprotected, albeit nicely decorated, room, and we are then able to sit in the shadow of the Shechinah. We see that we have the ability to raise our lifestyle from being ordinary and commonplace to Divine and G-dly. Through our actions, we can bring the Shechinah into our homes, very literally.
The kedushah of the sukkah is so real that it obligates us to behave differently while in the confines of our temporary dwelling than how we behave in our permanent homes all year long.
An example of the elevated level of conduct demanded in a sukkah appears in the Mishnah Berurah (679:2), who writes that due to the holiness of a sukkah, it is proper to refrain from idle talk and speaking lashon harah and rechilus there.
Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, in his sefer Zeman Simchaseinu, attaches great importance to the Chofetz Chaim’s warning about speaking lashon harah in a sukkah. He quotes the Nachlas Dovid, who states in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the mitzvah of sukkah vanquishes the evil inclination of lashon harah. He explains that this power is due to the fact that Sukkos mirrors the final redemption when the sin of lashon harah will be rectified.
Rav Cohen references Rav Chaim Palagi, who says that sukkah is emblematic of unity, for when the Ananei Hakavod enveloped Am Yisroel, they were considered as one. As such, lashon harah, which is the root of rivalry and machlokes, has no place in the sukkah. Since every Yom Tov brings with it the spiritual powers that it represents, and since Sukkos parallels, and bears the strength of, the Ananei Hakavod, we merit that when we sit in the sukkah, we are betzilah demehemnusah. Thus, actions which are incompatible with achdus have no place in the sukkah.
With this, we can also understand the simcha of the Bais Hashoeivah, which the Mishnah (Sukkah 5:2) and Gemara (Sukkah 52a) famously describe as the greatest simcha ever witnessed by man. Water was drawn from a spring and brought to the Bais Hamikdosh. Nothing is more available than water. Not only is water abundant, but it is also odorless, shapeless, and easily accessible. The lesson is that Jews can take simple water and raise it to the highest level of kedushah as an offering in the Bais Hamikdosh. Recognizing that they could effect the transition of one of the lowest forms of creation to the highest, brought such unparalleled happiness and joy to the Jewish people.
So often, we get overwhelmed by Olam Hazeh. We ponder the purpose of all that we experience and endure. We work hard and don’t always see our plans to fruition. We can get easily frustrated. Too often, the mundane humdrum of life wears us out because we don’t comprehend the purpose of it all.
But on Sukkos, we take a fruit and a stick and they become cheftzos shel mitzvah which are mashpiah bechol ha’olamos. We cobble together boards and bamboo to create a home where the Shechinah rests. We then see that our actions have positive effects and create heavenly places for us to live in. Our feelings of futility disappear, as our inner thirst for spirituality is fed and nourished.
We sit in the sukkah and bask in its warmth and holiness. We welcome our friends, family and the Ushpizin, and recognize that there is a greater purpose in all that we do. Our actions can bring Moshiach. It is not just a good drasha, it is real.
And it is not only Sukkos. Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes in Nefesh Hachaim (1:4) that no Jew should ever say to himself that he is useless and has no power to accomplish anything with his daily activities. Every action we undertake, every word we utter, and every thought we bear can accomplish great things in the upper worldly spheres.
Rav Yisroel Elya Weintraub, in his pirush Yiras Chaim, explains this idea and says that at the root of human failing is a person’s feeling that his actions have no intrinsic value. It is such insecure thinking that leads man to forsake the proper path and engage in sin. If people would be secure in the knowledge of the impact of their actions, they would not sin.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that this is the meaning of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:1) which states, “Da mah lemaalah mimcha – Know what is above you.” Know, the Mishnah exhorts us, that what transpires in the heavenly bodies is a result of your actions in this world.
Perhaps we can apply that Mishnah to our lesson from the sukkah. Know what is above you. As you sit in the sukkah and look up, know that your actions have caused the Shechinah to hover above you. Know that what you do has significance. Know that you have the power with your actions to dwell in the shadow of Hashem. Know that you have intrinsic value. Remember that you can cause world-altering changes. Know that nothing you do is wasted. It is all for a purpose.
There is nothing that brings more joy to a person than recognizing that he has value, that his internal battles have heavenly ramifications, and that he can accomplish more than he ever dreamed. And yes, he can take an otherwise mundane fruit and turn it into a treasured esrog.
Ashreinu, mah tov chelkeinu, umah yofoh yerushaseinu.