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Torah Attitude: Parashas Haazinu & Succos: Real joy
"Succos, the time of our gladness" does not seem to correspond to a special event that took place on a specific date. On the Festival of Succos we have two mitzvot: to take the four species and to dwell in the succah. The Talmud brings two interpretations of what the succah, that G'd provided us with in the wilderness, refers to. When we leave our homes and dwell in a succah in the beginning of the winter season, it is clear that we are doing so to fulfill the mitzvah. The Vilna Gaon explains that the Clouds of Glory returned to the Jewish nation on the fifteenth of Tishrei. We learn from Koheles that real joy can only be accomplished with mitzvot and good deeds. Real joy and gladness is not to be found in material wealth and comfort. Affluence and wealth often cause spiritual decline as well as shortcomings in interpersonal relationships.
Time of our gladness
Each of our three festivals has a unique theme. As we say in our prayers (Shemona Esrei for Festivals): "Passover is the time of our freedom. Shavuous is the time of the giving of our Torah. And Succos is the time of our gladness." We start to celebrate Passover on the date that G'd redeemed us from slavery in Egypt. Similarly, we celebrate Shavuous on the date we received the Torah. However, Succos does not seem to correspond to a special event that took place on a specific date. On a simple level, the reason why it is called "the time of our gladness" is because this is the time of the year when the harvest is brought home. As it says, (Vayikra 23:39-40) "But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month [counted from Nissan, see Shemos 12:2], when you gather the crop of the land, you shall celebrate G'd's Festival for seven days … and you shall rejoice before HASHEM your G'd for seven days." The Torah teaches that at the time we rejoice having the harvest in house, we shall utilize this celebration to rejoice before G'd. For He is the One who blessed our crop and constantly provides us with all our needs.
On the Festival of Succos we have two mitzvot: to take the four species and to dwell in the succah. We can understand that taking the four species corresponds to the time of the harvest. But dwelling in the succah does not seem to have anything to do with bringing home the crop. As a matter of fact, the Torah gives a totally different reason for this mitzvah. As it says, (ibid 43) "So that your generations shall know that I provided Succos for the children of Israel, when I took them out of the land of Egypt."
The Talmud (Succah 11b) brings two interpretations of what these succos refer to. On a simple level, the Talmud explains that our ancestors actually lived in some kind of booths during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. On a deeper level the Talmud explains that this refers to the Clouds of Glory that enveloped the Jewish people throughout that period. The Clouds protected them from their enemies, wild animals, and other dangers. At the same time, they provided shade from the hot sun and other harsh elements.
The Tur Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 625) asks an obvious question. If the succah is to commemorate what happened at the time of the exodus from Egypt, why do we not dwell in the succah during the Festival of Pesach, when we celebrate that exodus? Says the Tur, "We were not commanded to make a succah in the month of Nissan when the summer starts. At that time of the year it is common to sit in the shade of booths, and it would not be noticeable that we make our succah to fulfill the commandment of G'd. We are commanded to make s succah in Tishrei, at the beginning of the winter season, when everyone leaves their booths and go back home. When we leave our homes and dwell in a succah at this time of year, it is apparent that we do so to fulfill G'd's mitzvah."
Clouds of Glory
The Vilna Gaon explains that according to the Talmud's deeper interpretation, that the succos in the wilderness refer to the Clouds of Glory, we gain an additional understanding why we leave our homes to dwell in succos on the fifteenth of Tishrei. He explains that the Clouds of Glory disappeared after the sin of the golden calf, and only came back to protect the Jewish people when they started to erect the Tabernacle. Our sages teach that the sin of the golden calf took place on the 17th of Tammuz. This caused Moses to destroy the first tablets. The next day, on the 18th of Tammuz, Moses ascended Mount Sinai again, to pray to G'd and beg Him not to annihilate the Jewish people. Moses returned forty days later, at the end of the month of Av, only to ascend for a third period of forty days to receive the second tablets. He returned on Yom Kippur, the 10th of Tishrei, with the second tablets. On the following day, Moses gathered the Jewish people to instruct them about erecting the Tabernacle. For the following two days, the Jews brought the materials needed to build the Tabernacle. On the next day, the materials were given to the craftsmen to start their jobs. On the following day, the 15th of Tishrei, the actual work started. Concludes the Vilna Gaon, this is the day the Clouds of Glory returned to the Jewish nation, and this is the day we start to celebrate Succos.
It seems odd that specifically on the Festival that is "the time of our gladness", we leave the comfort of our homes to dwell in a primitive booth. We eat there, and when possible we sleep there, and do as many of our activities as we can in the succah. We would expect that "the time of our gladness" should be celebrated in a more grandiose fashion. We might be able to gain a better understanding of this with the words of King Solomon in Koheles that we read on Succos. The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) asks that King Solomon seems to contradict himself. In one verse he writes (Koheles 8:15) "And I praised happiness", but earlier he wrote (ibid 2:2) "And regarding happiness (I said) what does it achieve?" The Talmud answers that there are two kinds of happiness: one that comes from performing a mitzvah; this one King Solomon praises. The other one, that is not connected to a mitzvah, says King Solomon what does it achieve? It is well known that people who are constantly partying are not necessarily happy. They may enjoy themselves in the moment, but afterwards they often suffer from depression. For the superficial, materialistic happiness they experience is very fleeting. As our sages say, what makes you laugh today may make you cry tomorrow. On the other hand, when one does what is right, it gives a deeper satisfaction and happiness that stays with the person afterwards. That is why we only find real, lasting joy by people who fulfill mitzvot and do good deeds.
The Festival of Succos falls in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar: Chodesh HaSheviyi. If we change the "Shin" of Sheviyi to a "Sin", it reads Chodesh Haseviyi which means the saturated month. No month in the Jewish calendar is so saturated with mitzvot as the month of Tishrei, starting with Rosh Hashanah with the blowing of the shofar, through the fast of Yom Kippur, culminating with Succos when we take the four species and dwell in the succah. The Mitzvah of Succah in itself is unique. We perform our regular activities, such as eating and sleeping in the Succah, and just by doing them in this primitive booth, they are transformed into mitzvot that we perform 24/7. This is the deeper message of Succos. Real joy and gladness is not found in material wealth and comfort. On the contrary, that often can bring problems and misfortune. As its says in this week's parasha (Devarim 32:15) "And Jeshurun (the Jewish nation) became obese (affluent, see Targum) and kicked … and it deserted G'd its maker …they made Him angry with strangers and angered Him with abominations."
Affluence and wealth often cause spiritual decline as well as shortcomings in interpersonal relationships. We must understand that wealth is not an end in itself but a means to make a better society, where the more fortunate assist the less fortunate. When we realize this we can overcome the test of material wealth. The Rambam writes (Laws of Purim 2:17) "There is no greater and more beautiful joy than pleasing the poor." This is especially relevant to the Festival of Succos. As it says (Devarim 16:13-14) "You shall rejoice on your festival, you, your son and your daughter, your slave and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow." As we celebrate this beautiful festival of Succos, let us ensure that the spirit of this Festival, "the time of gladness", is shared with everyone around us. Let us make sure to provide financial assistance to those less fortunate, or invite those who are lonely to join us in our succos. In this way, we will also feel true happiness derived from doing mitzvot and good deeds.
Wishing you and your loved ones a Chag Sameach.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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