Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Sukkah of Faith

The mishnah teaches (Sukah 1:1) that a sukah that is built with its schach higher than twenty amos is invalid. The reason given in the gemara is that this extreme height implies permanence. However, the sukah must be diras aray, the opposite of permanent. Indeed, the roofing of the sukah is made of transitive materials, and its manner of placement must be ad hoc. It is not to be held down by metal or other man-made materials. However, the Davidic dynasty, the most resplendent demonstration of Israel's power and prestige, is referred to as a sukah: we say in the birkas hamazon, may God re-establish the sukah of David. What is the connection?

Rabbi Hirsch describes the symbolism of the schach. Sitting in the sukah, we leave the comfort and safety of our man-made dwellings. In our houses, it is easy to develop the feeling that we need our physical protection. We move into the temporary dwelling and remind ourselves that it is not the roof over our heads that protects us. We gladly trade the illusion of safety in kochi v'otzem yadi, the strength of our hands, for the protective care of God. In the sukah, exposed to the elements and sitting under a non-roof, we demonstrate that it is really Hashem who we rely on. He protects us in recompense for our actions, and our spiritual relationship to Him is what truly defends us against danger.

In a few weeks, we will read about Ya'akov wrestling the angel of Esav. The text describes the attack of the angel as, 'vaye'avek', he raised dust against Ya'akov. Rabbi Hirsch comments that it is more than just raising dust due to the actual struggle, but that the angel of Esav tried with all his might to bring Ya'akov down to the dust, to completely take him off his feet, to the ground. Realizing that this was impossible, the angel settled for bruising Ya'akov's sciatic nerve, his gid hanasheh.The angel leaves our forefather, and he continues on his way back to his family, limping into the sunrise, 'v'hu tzole'a' al y'recho'.

A person's legs symbolize the ability to take care of oneself and be stable. The nation of Israel limps through history, not quite able to walk upright. We are visibly weakened in the eyes of the nations around us. It is clear, as we make our painful way from exile to exile, that the children of Ya'akov are barely able to stay alive.The angel of Esav periodically throws all his resources at finally putting us down for the count. And yet, although we limp, we can never be stopped. We can be slowed, but we constantly plod resolutely toward the finish line of history.

It is not physical strength or fortitude that sustains Man. Not by our own power do Ya'akov's People limp on by. It is rather by our adherence to the Torah that we continue to exist. When we succeed, it is not thanks to our own physical prowess, for we are cripple. Rather, it is testament to God's power and our fulfillment of His will. In weakness, we learn that it is our faith in God that sustains us.

This holiday is a commemoration of God's physical preservation and continued sustenance of the nation of Israel in the desert, and throughout history. We celebrate the fact that, (Deut. 8:15) "[God] led you through the terrible wilderness where were serpents and scorpions, and thirst for water; He brought forth water out of stone." Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah celebrate God's spiritual preservation of Israel throughout history.

Whereas Ya'akov teaches us the lesson of our reliance on God in times of weakness and poverty, Sukos and Shmini Atzeres teach this lesson in the opulence of holiday cheer and comfort. The kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon represented the height and peak of our nation's wealth and honor. Precisely this royalty is stamped with the qualifier, sukah. Even in our power, we recognize that it is not from this power that our sustenance stems, but from our relationship with God. When we internalize this lesson, our power and honor can be sustained for the future.

Precisely our ever-developing relationship with God provides us with protection and solace in times of weakness, and power and prestige in times of good fortune. This relationship remains healthy as long as we cultivate it, much as a horticulturist would tend to a treasured specimen of flower. The word for growth, tzome'ach, is related, in Rabbi Hirsch's grammatical system, to the word for happiness, same'ach. True happiness is participating in this ever-growing relationship with Hashem.

If we internalize this lesson of the holiday of sukos, the lesson of the sukah and of the Davidic dynasty, we will merit to celebrate sukos as a true holiday of gladness through spiritual growth, yom simchatenu.