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Torah Attitude: Succos: Huts, happiness & security
"A man is obligated to be happy and good at heart on the festivals." We only experience true happiness when we include others in our celebration. The one festival that is expressly described as the "time of our gladness" is Succos. In ancient times, it was customary that the victorious party of a court case would celebrate with palm branches as a sign that they had won the case. Why is Succos, the "time of our gladness", celebrated in simple huts? The Torah commands us to build our succahs in the month of Tishrei, when the rains set in, and everyone leaves their cottages to return to their homes. The Zohar (Part 3:103B) describes the ones sitting in a succah as sitting in the "shade of trust". As a rule, a person who feels secure is happy. The ones that believe in G'd and put their trust in Him, have a much better chance of dealing with life's challenges.
In Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim (529:2), it says: "A man is obligated to be happy and good at heart on the festivals, he, his wife and children and whoever is around him. How does he make them happy? The minors he gives roasted grain and nuts. He buys the women garments and jewellery according to his means. And he is obligated to feed the strangers, orphans, widows as well as other poor people."
Happiness requires other people
An obvious question arises here. The Shulchan Aruch only deals with how to make everyone else happy. It does not describe what a man should do to make himself happy. However, the answer is very simple. Nothing makes a person more happy than when he makes other people happy. We only experience true happiness when we include others in our celebration. As Rashi so beautifully expresses when he defines happiness (Devarim 26:14): "I was happy and I made others happy." Imagine celebrating a wedding without guests. No one would truly enjoy a celebration of any happy occasion without family and friends around them. However, the Torah educates us not just to celebrate with the ones that we are close to, but to make sure that we also include the disadvantaged in our celebrations.
Time of our gladness
Although all three festivals are times of happiness, Succos is the one festival that is expressly described as the "time of our gladness". It seems strange that Succos is considered the most joyous occasion of the year especially as it is celebrated in a primitive hut under the open sky, rather than in the comfort of our homes. On a simple level, we can understand the reason for Succos being the time of happiness since it is celebrated at the time when the produce has been harvested. As it says (Vayikra 23:39),"On the 15th day of the 7th month, when you gather the crop of the land, you should celebrate a Festival of G'd for seven days." It is understandable that in any agricultural community the time of harvest is a joyous season. But the Torah teaches us to elevate our celebration to a higher level. In this way, we are reminded that although the farmer worked hard throughout the summer, it is G'd's blessing that fills his barns and storehouses with produce.
Victory in court
On a deeper level, we can understand this period of joy as going beyond the pleasure of harvesting one's produce. The Torah commands us to take the four species (lulav of the date palm, myrtle, willow and etrog) on the Festival of Succos. The Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 30:2) explains that we take these four species on Succos, as an aftermath to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In ancient times, the victorious party of a court case would celebrate with palm branches as a sign that they had won the case. Thus it is not by chance that we celebrate Succos following the judgment of the High Holidays. The Tour Orach Chaim (581) quotes a Midrash that points out how already on Rosh Hashana, our trust in G'd's mercy is so strong that we sit down to a festive meal to celebrate the Holiday. In a court case of life and death, says the Midrash, people would customarily dress in black. But we dress in white on the Day of Judgment anticipating that G'd will make a miracle for us. The Alter of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zisel Ziv, asks how can we both celebrate and be in awe and fear on the very same day? He answers that we have reason to celebrate since, as a nation, we have no doubt that we will survive. On the other hand, we tremble and fear as we do not know what kind of judgment we will receive as individuals.
On an even deeper level, we can understand why Succos, the "time of our gladness", is celebrated in simple huts. The Torah commands us to sit in a succah to commemorate how G'd looked after all our needs in the desert. As it says, (Vayikra 23:42-43): "You shall dwell in Succahs for seven days … so that your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in Succahs when I took them out of the land of Egypt." On one level, the Talmud (Succah 11b) explains that this refers to the actual succahs our forefathers dwelled in. On a deeper level, our sages (ibid) explain that this refers to the clouds of glory that enveloped the Jewish people during their 40 years sojourn in the wilderness. The clouds protected them from both sun and rain, as well as their enemies and other natural dangers and difficulties.
Huts in autumn
The Tour Orach Chaim (825) asks, if our dwelling in Succahs is to remind us of what happened after the exodus from Egypt, why do we not celebrate Succos in the month of Nissan, when we celebrate our exodus from Egypt? The Tour answers that the month of Nissan is in the spring when it is customary for people to dwell in cottages and sit in the shade of huts. At that time of year, it would not be so noticeable that we dwell in the huts in order to fulfill the commandment of the Torah. Therefore, the Torah commands us to build our succahs in the month of Tishrei, when the rains set in, and everyone leaves their cottages to return to their homes. This is the time when we leave our homes to dwell in succahs to commemorate the protection the Jewish people enjoyed when G'd took care of us after the exodus of Egypt.
Shade of trust
The Zohar (Part 3:103B) takes it a step further and describes the ones sitting in a succah as sitting in the "shade of trust". By leaving the so-called "security" of our regular homes and spending a week under the sky we express a tremendous level of trust in G'd. No security guard guarantees our safety in these primitive huts. But we enjoy the direct protection of G'd, Who looks after us and provides us with security, while dwelling there. Just as young children feel totally secure when taken care of by their parents, so do we feel secure when we enter the Succah.
Happiness is feeling secure
But what has this got to do with Succos being the "time of our gladness"? To answer this we must first analyze what make a person happy. As a rule, a person who feels secure is happy. But what makes a person feel secure? As we are going through a global recession, it is obvious that his has a tremendous impact on the mood of the millions of people who have lost their jobs or assets. But even the people who are not directly hit by the recession are also affected as it has created a general sense of financial insecurity.
Trust in G'd
But was the situation much better before the recession? Even when we lived through a period of general affluence we still experienced a staggering number of people being depressed and suffering from anxieties. The statistics of especially young people committing (or trying to commit) suicide have risen to frightening proportions over the last years. Add to this all those who turn to substance abuse, which is nothing but an attempt to escape the realities of life. It is clear that material wealth does not provide the kind of security that fosters real happiness. As the saying goes, "Money is not the key to happiness." The reason for this is simple, and has been proven time and time again. Money is not a stable factor one can trust and rely on. It can be there one day and disappear overnight. On the other hand, it is well known that the ones that believe in G'd and put their trust in Him, have a much better chance of dealing with life's challenges. They know that whatever problem they face, they are not on their own and they have a real sense of security as they put their trust in G'd.
As we enter the festival of Succos, we must internalize the message of trust in G'd that Succos brings. And the more we put our complete trust in G'd, the more we merit His protection. With this in mind, the "time of our gladness" will bring real happiness into our lives.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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