I have such wonderful memories and warm feelings for the Yom Tov of Sukkos. I remember the solid wood, green-painted Sukkah of my grandparents in Boston. I can vividly picture the Sukkah of my parents in Monsey. And today, I can’t wait to reconnect with my Sukkah here in Passaic. The wind, the cold that blows through sometimes-it doesn’t matter. It’s quite strange how this small, flimsy shack conjures up such warm feelings. Practically speaking, it’s a hut that pales in size, comfort, aesthetics and luxury to our homes, yet it creates for us such beautiful memories.
We are instructed to leave our solid homes to live in a Sukkah (a temporary structure) for seven days. Paradoxically, the Torah calls Sukkos the holiday of happiness: “Vehayisa Ach Somayach” (you shall be completely happy). Further, the Torah calls it “chag ha’asif” – the holiday of gathering – since it’s the time to harvest and gather all the produce from the past year. At this time of plenty, we celebrate by moving into a flimsy shack with a roof that will let in the rain. As we rejoice over Hashem’s gifts to us, shouldn’t we be sitting in our comfortable dining room to eat the festive meals?
The Chidushei Harim enlightens us that every holiday is endowed with a special attribute that we develop. In Shema, we list three areas in which we must dedicate ourselves entirely to Hashem: our heart, our life and our money. The Chidushei Harim aligns these three with the three major holidays of Pesach – all our heart; Shavuos – all our life; and Sukkos – all our money. Conversely, there are three primary evil character traits: jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor (Pirkei Avos), which are offset by dedicating ourselves entirely to Hashem with the three positive areas listed in Shema: “All our heart” counters jealousy; “all our life” counters lust and “all our money” counters pursuit of honor.
The focus of Sukkos is serving Hashem with “all our money” by actually foregoing our monetary possessions. Even though we adorn and decorate our Sukkah, few among us would be comfortable welcoming guests into their Sukkah all year round. This helps us mitigate our pursuit of honor. Instead, we focus on simcha – a pure sense of spiritual happiness where we joyfully honor Hashem instead of being concerned with our personal possessions.
A simple story helps to illustrate. Mr. James had purchased a rare Bordeaux at an auction for $7,800. He invited a few good friends to join him for a fancy dinner celebrating his 60th birthday at a country club. The friends arrived dressed in their finest. All were eagerly awaiting the opening of the prestigious bottle which was scheduled after the appetizer. The moment came and the white-gloved waiter walked in with the bottle balanced on a silver platter. You could hear a pin drop. Just as the waiter reached the table, he slipped! The bottle sailed through the air and shattered on the floor! All the guests, fully attired in tuxedos and custom gowns dived to the floor and began to lick up the wine. That night, a taste of the luxurious wine was worth more than their dignity and honor.
This story demonstrates that when something is truly valuable to us, we don’t care about our personal honor. We now understand why sitting in a Sukkah is so meaningful. The Chovos Halevavos tells us that true happiness comes from placing our entire reliance on Hashem. Each Sukkos, we show this to be true by leaving our secure and comfortable homes to live in a hut for seven days, as Hashem commands us.
It’s true that financial security may help a person feel happier. However, the federal government only guarantees about $100,000 – $250,000 in a bank account. Mutual funds, real estate and stocks may suddenly sink in value. You can literally be rich one day and poor the next. Only Hashem can truly guarantee financial security.
True simcha – happiness – comes from something that has real value. Our relationship with Hashem, as we demonstrate by performing mitzvos, is priceless. It helps guarantee both our spiritual and physical happiness. This explains why Sukkos is truly a time for happiness.
Sometimes we are concerned about what others will think, so we hesitate to perform certain mitzvos, such as wearing a yarmulke or wearing tzitzis in public, stopping lashon hara in a conversation, or praying in a public area. Sitting outdoors in our simple Sukkah, putting aside our own possessions and sense of importance – orients our values and priorities for the entire year. It shows our trust in Hashem and empowers us to embrace all our mitzvos…with joy and without hesitation.
A year ago around Rosh Hashana time, one of the Key West city commissioners who is a member of my synagogue asked me to deliver the invocation at the city commission meeting which turned out to be on Tzom Gedalia. I don’t fast that well, I usually get a caffeine headache in the afternoon, but I agreed to do it anyway.
It happened to be at the same time when hurricane Matthew was threatening Florida, so I mentioned in my invocation to the city a story I once heard. There was once a scientist who had a private audience with the Lubavitcher rebbe in the 1970s and he told the rebbe that according to his calculations the world will be under water in about ten years, due to “Global warming, rising oceans, SUVS, etc.”
So the rebbe asked him, “if that’s the case, that the world will be under water in ten years, what is your solution to the problem?”
So the scientist answered, “I have a bucket list for the next ten years including partying in Las Vegas, Key West, Thailand and New Orleans.”
So the rebbe answered the scientist and said “you got it all wrong,” and the Rebbe continued and said, “that if the world will be under water in ten years then you have ten years to figure out how to live underwater or above water.״
The message is clear. G-d usually doesn’t send us a challenge (some people call it problems) that we can’t handle (as is mentioned in the Talmud in the tractate of Avodah Zara) and if G-d sends us a curve ball then He also supplied us with the bat to hit the ball. We just have to make sure that we are not scared to pick up the bat and swing, and if we manage to hit the ball it’s a home run.
Unfortunately most people don’t push themselves beyond their natural instincts. If someone is naturally kind he will be known as a yes-man. If someone is naturally strict and assertive he will be known as a no-man. But G-d wants the yes-man to become a little bit of a no-man and the no-man to become a little bit of a yes-man.
Get out of your comfort zone.
In other words He wants you to change your nature to serve Him (G-d).
A known example of this is with our patriarch Abraham who was famous for his hospitality and kindness but when G-d wanted to seal with him the ultimate covenant, some of the angels in heaven protested that Abraham was undeserving of such a great merit and the fact that he was kind and hospitable was because that was his nature, but he didn’t really transform all of his attributes to G-d, so they argued he is only worshiping You in his comfort zone and therefore doesn’t deserve any special reward.
They said, test him to do a strict act for Your sake, that is not part of his nature. Let him sacrifice his own son and let’s see if he’ll do it. And despite that it was totally against Abraham’s nature, he passed the test, whereby he received the full covenant.
Many people had a lot of challenges lately including hurricane evacuations. For the most part these events bring out the best in people. It was heartwarming to receive the many offers of help and volunteers from the whole spectrum of the community, in the aftermath of hurricane Irma which we are still currently dealing with in the Florida Keys.
But I believe that if we challenged ourselves on our own a bit more, then G-d would challenge us a bit less. As it says in the Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 3, “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are removed from him.”
So challenge yourself this year. Help a friend in need even when there is no hurricane, forgive someone that you are holding a grudge against, go to a Torah class. I guarantee you won’t regret it, and if you take upon yourself some of the above challenging resolutions you will have the merit to challenge G-d and ask him to forgive you and grant you a happy and healthy sweet year.
Rabbi Yaakov Zucker has been the Director at Chabad Jewish Center Of the Florida Keys and Key West since 1995 and serves as the chaplain of the Monroe county Sheriff department.