Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sukkot seems to present a paradox. In our prayers, Sukkot is referred to as Zman Simhatenu – the “Season of Our Joy.” One would think that joy includes all of the physical comforts in life. Yet one of the main commandments of Sukkot is to build and live in a modest, temporary structure called a “Sukkah.” We are commanded to celebrate this joyous festival specifically by leaving the comfort of our homes.
Rabbi Yitshak Arama (Spanish Talmudist/Philosopher, 1420-1494) offers a deep insight as to the symbolism of dwelling in a Sukkah during Zman Simhatenu:
On Sukkot, everyone leaves behind his money matters, merchandise and produce, and all of his material possessions, and goes into a tiny booth which contains nothing but the meal for one day and usually nothing more than a bed, table, chair and lamp. This serves as a remarkable reminder for us not to indulge in building imposing structures, impressing on us that the minimum is all that we need during our temporary stay in this physical structure called planet earth, which is also a temporary abode. The minimum area for a Sukkah, seven handbreadths square and ten high, indicates a life of modesty and frugality. It is as if the halakha here is teaching us: limit yourself to the minimum, and do not aspire to luxury. If you accustom yourself to frugality, you will never lack anything; whereas if you allow yourself too many luxuries, you will feel as if you never have enough.
Rabbi Arama’s teaching brings to mind the timeless principle taught by Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:
Eizehu ashir? Ha-Sameach B’helko.
Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot in life.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)
By dwelling in a Sukkah during a weeklong festival of joy, we are reminded that happiness is not measured by the size of a home or the luxurious furnishings within it; rather, life is ultimately about the inner joy that one feels in his or her heart. Sukkot teaches us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment, and any other substantive features of life that go beyond material possessions. Life measured exclusively in material wealth, large buildings, bank accounts, zip codes, automobiles and financial status is a life void of meaning. As Rabbi Aramah teaches, life with too many luxuries builds a mentality that “this is not good enough, I need the better one.” Think about how we spend thousands of dollars on electronic products – phones, tablets and laptops – and just a few short months later, when the newer model comes out, we are convinced that the one we have is no longer good, and we must “upgrade.” Sukkot challenges us to think differently.
Dwelling in a Sukkah also reminds us that life is temporary, and that we must learn to value our time here on earth. Dwelling in a Sukkah reminds us of the frailty of life. Much like a sudden, unexpected gust of wind can knock our Sukkah down, so, too, can our situation in life change so quickly. Sukkot is a time when we are reminded to appreciate our lives, and to thank God and those who surround us for the blessings we may have. In this minimal structure of temporary walls and a roof of palm fronds, we are called upon to celebrate life, be thankful for what we have, and enjoy every moment.
A Kabbalistic tradition teaches that as part of the expression of celebrating life, it is a mitzvah on Sukkot to invite guests into our Sukkah. On each night, in addition to any family or friends, we also invite and welcome the Shiva Ushpizin, the “Seven Guests,” each of which joins us on a different night of Sukkot: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.
In the spirit of what Sukkot teaches us about life, perhaps we should invite one more symbolic guest -- Abraham Lincoln -- who had a very profound teaching about life, one that is most definitely applicable to our dwelling in joy in a Sukkah:
“It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Hag Sukkot Sameach and Moadim L’Simha.
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Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
“This is Kol Yisrael from Jerusalem, Reshet Aleph and Reshet Bet. Shalom and Gmar Hatimah Tovah. It’s 3 p.m. An official IDF [Israel Defense Forces] spokesman reports that at approximately 2 p.m. today, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched attacks in the Sinai and in the Golan Heights. Our forces are currently fighting against the attackers. Due to Syrian jets flying over the Golan Heights, air-raid sirens have been heard throughout the country. These alerts are to be taken seriously, and residents are asked to stay off of the streets and inside shelters. A major emergency call-up of reservists is currently under way. Our correspondents in the Golan Heights report fierce battles between Syrian and Israeli tanks, and the roads are lined with military vehicles. Worshippers wrapped in tallitot were seen coming out of synagogues to bless the soldiers on their way to battle.”
Forty years ago on Yom Kippur, this radio broadcast was heard in Israel, sending shockwaves and panic throughout the country. On the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Israelis felt afraid, confused and bewildered. Yet despite these apprehensive emotions, Israelis were determined to defend themselves. Ripped away from loved ones, forced to replace tallitot with flak jackets and prayer books with Uzi submachine guns, Israelis pulled together in this moment of crisis and rose to the occasion. They were unified in their desire to defend their families, their communities and their collective homeland.
On this 40th anniversary of that fateful Yom Kippur day, I present our readers with excerpts of authentic “letters from the front,” written by soldiers in the thick of battle. Coming straight from their hearts, the words of these letters are genuine and pure. Especially when read on Yom Kippur, they arouse a sense of kedushah (holiness) within us, metaphorically evoking selections from the Yom Kippur machzor (prayer book).
The Silent Amidah
“I finally received your letters. Reading them suddenly reminded me of a world that I almost forgot existed — a home, a wife, children, small daily problems and tremendous love. The sound of the canons is subdued for now, replaced instead with silence. What a beautiful thing it is, this silence. The skies are clear and all of the stars are visible. Beholding this beautiful sight within this awesome silence, it is hard to imagine that just a few short hours from now, at the crack of dawn, these two armies will wake up to wreak explosive and hellish havoc on one another. Oh, the beauty of silence.”
Ten Pahdecha — Instill Within Us Fear of You
“Being here in battle, I have learned about things that I never took seriously. I have learned all about pachad — fear. I am afraid. This realization of fear came to me on my 20th birthday, here on the front lines. As a birthday gift, I received the gift of fear. As strange as this may sound, the realization of fear opened my heart, for during this long moment of fear, I also discovered something else within me: a will to live. Such were my feelings when surrounded by missiles flying in all directions.”
Atah Kadosh — There Is No God Besides You
“The long grueling hours that I spent in the trenches under enemy fire gave me the opportunity to think about the meaning and value of life. The more I thought about such things and the closer the missiles came to hitting us, I and all of my friends gathered around the small book of Psalms that I always keep in my pocket. In the face of real danger, we can only turn to God. Together we lay in the trenches, frightened, yet full of faith in God. Each of us took turns kissing the little book, each of us reading a sacred Psalm.”
V’Ya’asu Kulam Aguda Ahat — May We Become One Unified People
“Life is quite strange. Being here in the darkest of circumstances inspired me towards the most beautiful thought: I love all of my people. Anyone who is Israeli, anyone who is Jewish, I love them all, no matter what differences we may have. Dear God, how small-minded we sometimes act towards one another when life is normal, but how giving and warm we are in our dire moments of crisis. This seems to be the character of our people: confrontation and divisiveness in our day-to-day lives, but rock solid unity and strength in the face of threats and danger against us.”
Our rabbis taught: “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” Forty years later, on this Yom Kippur, these words enter our hearts. They remind us of the valor, faith, humanity and character of those who defended Israel during her greatest hour of need. Their heartfelt words, like those in the machzor, inspire us with hope in the face of uncertainy.