Without a doubt, the month of Tishre is the most intense month on the Jewish calendar. No sooner than we finish the uplifting day of Yom Kippur, we are already on the threshold of Sukkot. In fact, the custom is to begin constructing the sukkahimmediatelyafter the conclusion of the fast on mosae’h Yom Kippur. Minhag Yisrael Torah – Our customs constitute Torah. Just as we delve into the meaning of the Torah and its misvot, so too, we must understand the reason behind our customs.
Why is it so important to begin the sukkah right after Yom Kippur? Perhaps we do so to engage in a misvah activity after doing teshuva, to show we want to start on the right foot. The problem with this approach is that it does not explain why specifically the custom is to build the sukkah. According to this logic, we could do any misvah. Clearly there is an inherent connection between Yom Kippur and themisvahofsukkah.
Many deep explanations of this custom have been offered. Rav Shlomo Malcho suggests that the root of this custom is alluded to in Sefer Bereshit. The first time the term sukkahis found in the Torah is in reference to Yaakov making “sukkot” as shelters for his livestock. This event immediately follows the account of the dramatic meeting between Yaakov and Esav which concludes with Esav leaving Yaakov in peace and returning to his homeland in Se’ir. The Hachamim teach, “Ma’aseh avot siman labanim – The lives of our forefathers are the blueprint for Jewish history.” Generations later, on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (high priest) would take the se’ir la’azzazael (scapegoat) and transfer all the sins of the Jewish people on to it, and then send it to be cast off a cliff in the desert. This corresponds to Esav, who represents sin and the evil inclination, being sent away from us. Today, we achieve this kappara and send Esav away through our teshuva and confession during the Yom Kippur prayers. Then, just as our father Yaakov did, when freed of evil Esav, we also engage in building our sukkah.
A Deeper Explanation
The Lubavitcher Rebbe offered an incredible explanation of this connection between Yom Kippur and building the sukkah on a deeper level.He taught that after we do teshuva for not completely following the Torah during the year, the main “take-away” from Yom Kippur is that we now completely subjugate ourselves to the will of Hashem and reaffirm our commitment to keep the six hundred and thirteen misvot. That is why we recite “hukecha esora – I will keep Your laws” seven times at the conclusion of Neilah.
We continue to express that commitment through the sukkah. It is one of the few misvot that we perform with our entire body; the sukkah totally encompasses us. Thus, when a person enters the sukkah he subjugates his entire body to the will of Hashem. This is why we start building the sukkah immediately at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. We are proclaiming that we are now ready to enter the sukkah with all two hundred forty-eight limbs of our body to accept upon ourselves the two hundred forty-eight positive misvot of the Torah.
Moreover, the critical element of the sukkah is not the walls, but the sechach (the roof). The definition of a sukkah as a temporary dwelling refers to the roof alone. It is permissible to make the walls from any material. They may even be permanent or luxurious. However, everyone’s sechach is the same. Everyone will have a leak in their sukkahno matter what the walls are made of. The atrium of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem is transformed into one of the world’s most luxurious sukkahs, but if it rains in Jerusalem, there will be puddles in the Waldorf lobby. The significance of the roof is that it indicates that the misvotare over our heads. By putting our heads in the sukkah, we are acknowledging the limitations of our own minds and the need to accept the misvot even if they don’t make sense to us. Our brains do not even begin compare to those of the Rambam, the Ben Ish Hai, or Hacham Ovadia. Therefore, we have no right to even consider modifying the misvotto fit our modern sensibilities.
The Rebbe cited the pasuk in Yeshaya which states that the sukkah will serve as a shelter to protect us from “zerem u’matar,” which literally means from storm and rain. The deeper meaning of this pasuk is that the sukkah provides profound spiritual protection from the “storm winds” of modernity which attempt to uproot and topple our commitment to the Torah and its misvot. “Zerem” is numerically equivalent to 247, and “matar” is equivalent to 249. We enter the sukkah with our 248 limbs to avoid those who would detract from the two hundred forty-eight misvot, as well as those who would add to them. Just like a woman who immerses in a mikvah, but if one tiny limb remains outside of the water, she is not purified, so too we have to accept the complete Torah in its entirety. We accept the 248 positive misvot, just as we would never choose to add or subtract to the limbs of our body.
What About Modifying the Misvot?
When Rav Shach was once in the hospital, he asked his doctor what car he drives. “Mercedes,” he replied. “And what will your next car be?” asked the rabbi. “Also, a Mercedes. In fact, every few years I trade in my old car and upgrade to the latest model.” “And why do you do that?” prodded the rabbi. “Because each time they make it a little better.” The doctor went on to explain how every few years the automaker made improvements in performance and added new features. Then Rav Shach turned to him and said, “So let me ask you; you’re a heart surgeon. If you could, what would you do to improve the human heart?” The doctor, somewhat taken aback, responded, “Nothing. It already functions at the optimal level.” “Nothing?” asked the rabbi. “How is the heart different from a new Mercedes?” The doctor, who now understood the rabbi’s intention, conceded, “Human invention may be good, but it’s not perfect. There is always room for improvement. The heart is the work of Gd. It is perfect. Any modification or alteration would ruin it.” Rav Shach took this idea one step further and said, “The Torah is also perfect. It never needs an upgrade or a modification. We never tamper with the misvot, just like you wouldn’t mess with the human heart.
Contrast this with the United States Constitution. It may be a great document, but it is not divine, and therefore it is not perfect. That is why every few decades there are constitutional amendments. People make changes to it to adapt it to the spirit of the time. The liberal school of thought views it as a “breathing document,” and they do not even feel obligated to interpret it according to the intent of its authors. On the other hand, the Torah must be explained by the intent of the Creator.
The Ben Ish Hai emphasized that those who would add to the misvot are just as bad as those who would delete from them. “Kol hamosif goreah – All who add, detract.” Adding to Gd’s misvot means that you don’t view them as divine. If man can come along and add, he will eventually detract. Sometimes you have a great recipe. Adding ingredients only ruins it. It’s like the old Samsonite luggage with the dial code locks. If the three digits were not perfectly aligned, it wouldn’t open. Our Torah has a code: 613. Any slight deviation will not open it.
The misvot are eternal. For this reason, the Kabbalah teaches that Moshe Rabbenu corresponds to the Sephira (divine attribute) of Netzach. He gave us the Torah which is eternal, which comes from Gd who is eternal. The Torah is the brain of Gd. If someone says the Torah is outdated, it is like saying Gd is outdated and not relevant, Heaven forbid. Thus, the modernist attitude of the non-orthodox movements who dare suggest that the misvot are no longer relevant is the height of arrogance.
The Mistake of Making Changes
Even within Orthodox Judaism, the concept of “modern” orthodoxy needs clarification. It is true; we all live in the modern world. But the critical question is who is influencing who. Some would have the modernity influence orthodoxy, attempting to “modernize” halacha to be compatible with their western values.
For example, in Los Angeles, a principal in a Yeshiva High School got up and proclaimed his “alternate lifestyle,” and everyone applauded. “We’re going to have an open school and we’re proud of it. I pray for the day the rabbis will reinterpret that pasuk,” he said, without embarrassment. These movements want to delete from the misvot of the Torah. Yes, there are “Shivim panim latorah – seventy facets to interpreting the Torah,” but not seventy-one. They have gone too far and are trying to advance the seventy first interpretation, which is out of bounds and against the Halacha. The sukkah protects us from such interpretations.
The legitimate approach to modern orthodoxy is that the orthodoxy should be applied to and influence modern life. We believe in “orthodoxing” modernity and not modernizing orthodoxy. This is what Hacham Ovadia dedicated his life to. He demonstrated that the Torah has an opinion about all subjects, even questions dealing with matters that did not exist two thousand years ago, such as technology, fertility, or cloning. Since the Torah is the blueprint of the world, there is never a question to which the posek answers, “The Torah has nothing to say about this issue.” The rabbis apply the eternal halachic principles to their modern applications, similar to the way the geometric theorems can be applied to any shape or figure.
The mishna in Pirke Avot says that the Torah is compared to old wine in a new flask. The new flask symbolizes modernity – which is not a problem, per se, as long as it contains the authentic original vintage Torah. The problem is that the modernists have tampered with the original wine.
Connecting with Misvot and Our Past
Unfortunately, for many Jews, keeping the misvot is solely about connecting with ancient history. They sit in the sukkah and eat massa as a nostalgic way to connect with the memory of their grandparents. An eternal Torah means that the misvot are not just relics from the past, but also apply now and into the future. We teach our kids to keep the Torah, because we are absolutely certain that there will be the same halachot in one hundred years from now. Contrast this with technology, where no teacher today would teach his students yesterday’s legacy computer languages, because it will obviously be worthless by the time they grow up.
The New York Times once conducted an experiment to try and imagine what its headlines will look like in fifty years. People submitted all kinds of articles, envisioning the news and trends of the year 2068. They asked the editor whether he thought any of the “way out” things suggested by the participants accurately depicted the future. He responded that it is very doubtful that any of those headlines will actually come to be. “The only thing I can be sure of, though, is that the little notice on the front page of the Friday edition, ‘Shabbat candle-lighting in New York will be at 6:15,’ will still be there.” The Torah stands the test of time. It is the only thing that is stable.
Perhaps this is the lesson of the ushpizin, the seven heavenly guests we invite each night into the sukkah. Who do we invite? Our forefathers – Avraham, Yishak, and Yaakov. We are saying that the ancient legacy of our patriarchs is still welcome into our modern-day sukkah. We aren’t looking for new, more trendy visitors.
Withstanding the Test of Time
A number of years ago, there was a craze about a bestselling book called, The Secret. The author claimed the book would change your life and practically bring bliss to mankind. Everyone had to have a copy. Each edition sold out and it was backordered for months. The author was booked to speak on talk shows for years in advance. Recently, I was in the Seattle airport waiting for my flight, which had been delayed. I went into a Barnes and Noble books store and asked the clerk for The Secret. She had never heard of it; obviously it wasn’t on the bestseller list anymore. She goes to the computer and looks it up. “Oh, it’s over there,” she says, pointing towards the bargain bin. There it was, buried in the bottom of the barrel, boasting an 80% clearance sticker, plus a free cup of coffee. They were practically begging to get rid of it, like yesterday’s “get-rich-quick” schemes and fad diets. Then I asked the clerk if they had the Jerusalem Bible. “Of course,” she said, “It’s right here,” motioning to a podium displaying a big sign, “Bestseller.” The Torah has no expiration date and its misvot stand the test of time.
It is no coincidence, then, that we celebrate Simhat Torah immediately after emerging from our sukkot. Once we have achieved the protection of the sukkah from adding or subtracting misvot, we can truly rejoice in the divine, eternal Torah. In this light, Rav Yitzchok Hutner once explained why we carry the Sefer Torah high. When people go to London, they go see the famous Big Ben clock. The reason that it is high up on the tower is not just for visibility. Rav Hutner commented that if it would be low, everyone would have access to it and try to change its time according to their watch. You are supposed to set your watch to Big Ben, not vice versa. So too, we hold the Sefer Torah high to teach that it cannot be tampered with. We must synchronize our lives with the truth of the Torah, as opposed to the norm today of trying to change the Torah to fit convenience and politically correct sensibilities.
For the other movements, the truth of the Torah is too heavy for them to carry. They view authentic Judaism as excess baggage, from which they pick and choose. Once you add or subtract, it is not EMMET (truth); rather it is MET (dead). Once a vital limb or organ of the Torah is severed, it is no longer a Torat Haim (living Torah). Baruch Hashem, we have broad shoulders to proudly carry and dance with the emmet (truth) of the living Torah.