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October 4, 2017 1:20 pm

The Message of Sukkot: Spiritual Elevation Is a Process, Not a Switch

avatar by Pini Dunner

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Rabbisacks.org.

With each passing year, sukkah companies try and make it easier for you to build your sukkah. Today, you can buy a kit from a sukkah store, and find all the instructions to building one online.

“Don’t worry,” the YouTube video promises, “even a novice can put up a sukkah in less than 15 minutes.” This declaration is accompanied by a sped-up video of a white-shirted yeshiva man putting up his sukkah in 32 seconds, while klezmer music plays in the background.

The Talmud, however, devotes a dense and lengthy tractate to the construction of a sukkah. Those familiar with it will tell you that the rules are complex and complicated. Actually, they sound like something out of a Jackie Mason routine. The sukkah can’t be too short, but it can’t be too tall. It doesn’t need four walls, but it needs more than two. That doesn’t mean it needs three; two-and-a-half is good, but not two-and-a-quarter. You can’t have too much sun coming in through the roof, but too much shade is also no good, etc.

This makes the Talmud’s assertion (Aboda Zara, 3a) that building a sukkah is a mitzvah kalla — a simple commandment — all the more intriguing. The passage related to sukkah construction discusses what will happen when the Messiah arrives, and the nations of the world come face-to-face with their long and bitter history of mistreatment of the Jews — along with their refusal to acknowledge God’s designated religion. Each nation will present its case as to why they should be included in the Messianic redemption, but their excuses will all be dismissed. The nations will then request that God gives them one last chance to start afresh and make amends:

‘Offer us the Torah anew and we shall obey it.’ God will say to them, ‘Oh, foolish ones, he who took trouble to prepare for the Sabbath can eat on Sabbath. But he who has not troubled to prepare for Sabbath, what shall he eat on Sabbath? Nevertheless, I have an easy commandment called Sukkah; go and carry it out.

Immediately, all of them will go and construct a sukkah on their rooftops. But God will cause the sun to burn over them like the height of summer, and they will all trample down their sukkahs and depart…

This passage is extremely bizarre. Building a sukkah properly is not “easy” — as the passage suggests it is. It is complicated and challenging. Besides, if it gets too hot, observing the mitzvah becomes impossible, and it is no longer mandated. Why does God ask the nations to observe Sukkot, only to make it uncomfortable for them to do so by raising the temperature? And why tell them that it is an easy commandment?

Rabbi Abraham Hayyim Schor offered a remarkable insight into this curious Talmudic tale. He pointed out that although there are certainly simpler Jewish observances than building a sukkah, none of them have the one crucial quality that only a sukkah has.

When you are sitting in a sukkah, it is as though you are observing everything else that is written in the Torah. And while there are other ways one can do this, they are either more costly, or require more commitment or greater expertise: making and then wearing tzitzit at all times is one example; another example is observing Shabbat.

When the Talmud refers to the construction of a sukkah as an “easy mitzvah,” the suggestion is not that building a sukkah is easy. Rather, it means that a sukkah can provide those who use it with an expedited route to God. In the end-of-days scenario depicted in the narrative, the nations are looking for exactly such an opportunity, so that they can participate in the Messianic redemption.

While this explanation is compelling, how exactly does a sukkah encapsulate the essence of that which God seeks from humanity? Clearly none of this has actually happened, and it may never happen, so what is the underlying message?

Ultimately, the purpose of creation is for material things to recognize God, despite having the handicap of being physical, and thereby detached from the divine. The Midrash describes the process as follows: “God covered himself up and created the world”– this means that God shields the physical world from His light.

As we advance through life and develop spiritually, God exposes us to His light little by little, so that we are not blinded.

Sukkot occurs immediately after the High Holidays, when we go through a spiritual detox. But while that might prepare us for God’s light, we are still not quite ready to be subjected to the blinding, burning sunshine. We need a little more shade as we emerge from utter darkness. Shifting to spirituality is a process. We may get there in the end, but it cannot be rushed.

Thus, even emerging from the house is unwise if we are not properly prepared. As God says to the nations in the Talmudic narrative, “he who has not troubled to prepare for Sabbath, what shall he eat on Sabbath?” But the nations are impatient; they have no time for process. They want it all, and they want it all now.

This Talmudic passage is an eye opener for spiritual seekers. If you get too much, too fast, you will crash and burn. If you demand instant results, you are guaranteed disappointment — and the opportunity will be lost. Sukkot is there to remind us that God created us to be marathon runners, not sprinters. It is all about the process. We are on our way, and we will get there. But it has to happen in carefully managed stages.

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