By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Imagine the following scenario. One cool October afternoon, a religious man goes to visit his Torah observant therapist to discuss his many stresses. He is uneasy with his material lot, and feels the strain of keeping up with all of the proverbial Goldbergs in his life. It troubles him to see others in his community who live in larger, more beautiful homes, drive fancier cars, and go on more elaborate vacations. He is pained to see the names of these same people appear on dedication plaques and as dinner honorees, while he can barely eke out a small contribution. The therapist listens closely. After much thought and reflection, he directs his suffering client, not to medication or further counseling, but to a Sukkah. “There”, he says, “you will find relief from your troubles.” One could envision the confused and troubled look on the face of the client, especially after he receives his bill!
Yet, that is exactly one of Hashem’s primary remedies to such feelings of material inadequacy.
Every evening during Maariv we ask Hashem to “spread upon us your Sukkah of peace.” One might wonder, what is the relationship between the Sukkah and peace? We understand that the act of sitting (and even sleeping) in a Sukkah evokes memories of Hashem’s miraculous preservation of the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai desert following their exodus from Egypt.
You shall dwell in Succos (booths) for seven days…so that your generations will know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in Succos, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)
But how does such commemoration bring us to a deeper sense of peace and tranquility?
In truth, there is much more to the mitzvah of Sukkah than a simple historical commemoration. Sitting in the Sukkah affords us the opportunity to take a step back from the competitive rat race in which we live, and come to a fuller and more accurate understanding of what this world is really all about.
Never has this been truer than in our times. Our world is that of Madison Avenue, where the marketing of luxury products continues unabated, echoing one basic message: Without this, your life is incomplete. Of course, depending on the target audience, “this” may refer to anything from toys and dolls (American Girl, mind you), to designer clothing, to oversized houses with granite backsplashes, as well as sleek sports cars which can go from “0 to 60” in 0.2 seconds. In such a world, a person who lacks any – or certainly all – of these comforts simply cannot find satisfaction. (Of course, we know that even those who are able to acquire these items are typically far from satisfied, as their attention is soon drawn to a new line of the “latest and greatest”.)
On Succos, we leave the comforts of our materialistic existence behind and enter a simple structure called a Sukkah. There we are to remain for seven days, living directly under Hashem’s protection without concern for our worldly comforts.
The Sukkah is the great equalizer. It is there that we turn our attention away from materialistic pursuits. Instead, we gaze up at the sky above us and come to a deeper appreciation that Hashem runs the world and that only He can and does provide for us.
The Sukkah reminds us that there is no physical permanence for us in this world, that all efforts at achieving materialism are fleeting and wasteful. In the words of the wisest of all men, King Solomon, “vanity of vanities…all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) It is for this exact reason that we read these words on Succos.
That, says Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. 1, pp. 106ff), is how a Sukkah can bring a sense of peace to man. Peace, he says, can only exist when each person is satisfied with his lot, and does not view others as being his personal competition. Once we have been redirected away from our materialistic urges and our competitive sense has been removed, we can work together harmoniously for the common good, perfectly at ease with one another.
It should thus come as no surprise that the clouds of glory which protected the Jewish nation during their long trek through the desert were bestowed to the people in the personal merit of Aharon Hakohen (see Leviticus Rabbah 27:6, et al). Aharon was the quintessential “pursuer of peace” (Hillel used to say, ‘Be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace.’ – Avos 1:12). What is perhaps even more compelling is the fact that, according to one opinion in the Mishna (Sukkah 11b), the “Sukkah” to which the Torah refers was not an actual booth, but was clouds themselves. Thus, the defining characteristic of Aharon Hakohen, peace and contentment, emerges every time we sit in the structure that his merits inspired!
While it is still unlikely that the above explanation would bring solace to our incredulous patient, it should be comforting to us, particularly in the tumultuous times in which we live, to know that we can enter our own “Sukkah of peace”, which will bring us the deep sense of contentment that we all so desperately seek.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, M.Ed., is an instructor of Jewish History at Hebrew Theological College (Skokie, Illinois) and serves as associate principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel in Chicago. More information about Rabbi Hoff can be found on his website,rabbihoff.com