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Home » Sukkot

Sukkot: The Sukkah Paradox

Submitted by on September 10, 2006 – 5:54 amNo Comment | 1,865 views

The Sukkah Paradox

For eight days I abandon the comforts of home and move into a backyard hut, a temporary shelter called a Sukah. My Sukkah is buffeted by wind and chilled by the cold, yet as I sit inside, I am happy.  I lift my eyes and behold the panorama of heavenly stars and I reflect on the simple pleasures of life.

The simple Sukah inspires a sense of nostalgia; of ancestors in the Shtetel, who made do with less. A simple wooden hut and a covering of straw sufficed for a large family. Down comforters and running water, who ever thought of them? Yet they were happy. Content to make do with their lot. They knew how to count their blessings.

I breathe in the sweet scent of pine, mingled with the rich aroma of bamboo and I contemplate a time when less was actually enough. It is then that I notice the gleaming candlesticks and fine china that adorn my simple table. The colorful decorations and beautiful lights that decorate my simple Sukkah. (1) They are an incongruous sight. They don’t seem to belong!

The message of the Sukkah is to be content with less. How does my fine china fit in?

This is the Sukkah’s paradox and its two fold message. In our dwelling places and material pursuits we are content with less. In our Mitzvot and spiritual aspirations we always strive for the best.

Heaven Above – Earth Below

The Torah exhorts us to know that “G-d is the lord in the heaven above and in the earth below.” (2) The Torah is exceedingly economical with its words. Every word is calculated, every letter is meticulous. Why then does the Torah point out that the  heavens are above and earth is below? Are we not already familiar with their locations?

Rabi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk offered the following insight. (3) The two words, above and below, are linked to the beginning of the verse, “and you shall know that G-d is the lord.”

To know G-d we must first embrace G-d and to do that we must suspend our ego.  Before we can contemplate G-d we must make space for G-d in the confines of our minds. G-d cannot fill my mind if it is already filled with selfish thoughts. How do we purify our minds?

By two simple steps: Heaven – above. Earth – below.

Contentment

The Mishnah teaches that to be content with our lot is to be truly wealthy. In simple words, those who are content, lack for nothing. (4) Those who continually seek, lack for everything. Our sages taught, “He who has one-hundred coins desires two-hundred, he who has two-hundred coins desires four-hundred .” (5)

Following this logic an inverse pattern emerges. Every time you double your wealth your net-worth shrinks by a factor of two. When you have one-hundred dollars you lack only one-hundred dollars. When you acquire two-hundred dollars your needs instantly double.

The wealthier you are, the more you desire. The more you desire, the more you lack. The more you lack, the more imp

overished you are. Who then is truly wealthy? Those who are content with their lot.

Only in Material Affairs

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, often explained that the value of contentment espoused by this Mishnah must only be applied to matters of materialism.

In matters of Torah and spirituality we must aspire for greatness and never be content with mediocrity. In matters of holiness we seek to ascend ever higher. To study another chapter of Torah, to finance another charitable cause or to take on another invigorating challenge. (6)

Above and Below

This is why the Torah specifies that heavens are above and earth is below.

In earthly material matters we fix our gaze on those below us, we look to those, who have less than us, and learn to be grateful for our lot. In heavenly spiritual matters we fix our gaze on those above us, to those, who have accomplished more than us and seek to emulate them.

“And you must know that G-d is the Lord.” Where is G-d? “In the heavens above and on  earth below.” G-d can be found in the heavenly gaze that is directed above and in the earthly gaze that is directed below.

When we relinquish our desire to amass more wealth, to build a larger house and to drive a fancier car, we will have made room for G-d. When we dedicate ourselves to matters of Torah and spirituality with unerring devotion, we will have found G-d.

The Sukkah

This is the message of the Sukkah Paradox. The dwelling is simple, but the Mitzvah is beautified.

During Sukkot we relinquish our plush furniture and comfortable homes. The vacuum left by the lack of material comforts makes room for G-d. This empty space is filled with G-dliness when we enhance our Mitzvot with glory and beauty.

We voluntarily opt for a simple dwelling to symbolize our contentment with less. Yet we adorn the Mitzvah of the Sukkah with china, silver and all manner of beautification to emphasize that in matters of the spirit we always strive for the best.

Question:

How do you explain the differences between Jewsh communities on the tradition of Noi Sukkah (beautify the Sukkah)?

Feel free to post a coment.

Footnotes

  1. Bab. Talmud, Sukkot, 28b.
  2. Duetornomy 4:39.
  3. R. Menachem Mendel of Kotz, 1787-1859. This explanation was related by R. Israel Meier Lau, former Chief rabbi of Israel, at a lecture in Jerusalem, in the Spring of 2006, in the name of R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.
  4. Ethics of our fathers, 4: 1.
  5. Kohelet Rabba, 1: 13.
  6. R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994.
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