Torah Reading for Week of September 27-October 3, 2020
“The Beauty and Blessings of Sukkot”
By Rabbi Mark Diamond, AJRCA Professor of Practical Rabbinics
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
One of the two primary mitzvot of the Sukkot holiday is the precept to dwell in a sukkah. The fragility of the booths we construct is an integral part of the holiday observance. A properly-made sukkah should sway with the elements, at least a little bit.
My early adventures in sukkah construction featured a ramshackle booth that was adjacent to a Jewish student house in Northfield, Minnesota. Not only did the sukkah suffer the ravages of an early snowfall, it caused quite a stir with the campus administration. I fondly recall one day when the dean of housing drove by, slammed on the brakes of his car, and queried me about the unauthorized structure that violated every building code on or off the campus. I replied: “Don’t worry, it will come down in a week!”
Like the shaky sukkah, our lives are often subject to powerful forces beyond our control. No sukkah is guaranteed to withstand all the elements of nature. Likewise, no one is exempt from the trials and tribulations of life. For seven days each year, we forsake our permanent abodes and dwell in humble huts. These temporary accommodations teach us humility. They remind us of the frailty and uncertainty of human life. They compel us to ask: Do we have a destiny to fulfill on this earth? Or is our fate merely a series of chance events, our lives as fragile and tenuous as a sukkah blowing in the wind?
The question has ancient roots. The Talmud tells us that for two and a half years, the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated the most profound existential question of all. The Shammai team contended that it would have been better had God not created humankind. The Hillel team argued that it was better that God put us on earth.
Finally, they voted. Normally, in a dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, Hillel wins hands down. Not in this case. When all the votes were in, Shammai prevailed. The sages decided that it would have been better had God not created us. However, since our creation is an indisputable fact, we should scrutinize our deeds. In a variant tradition, others say that we should consider our future actions.
Is there an ultimate purpose to life? In classic rabbinic fashion, the sages answer with a resounding maybe. In pure philosophical terms, it would have been better had we not been brought into this world. Nonetheless, since we’re here anyway, we must justify our existence by performing good deeds.
There is a charming tale about how the Hassidic master Rabbi Hayyim of Zanz prepared for the Sukkot holiday one year. On the eve of yom tov, he told his children that he urgently needed several thousand rubles. Responding to their father’s timely request, they went from door to door borrowing the money from wealthy members of the community. Upon their return, Reb Hayyim distributed all of the money to the needy.
As the rabbi and his family entered their sukkah that evening, he said, “People are accustomed to decorate their sukkah with all manner of pretty ornaments. The beauty of my sukkah is different. Tzedakah is what makes my sukkah beautiful!”
As we celebrate the festival of Sukkot, we are mindful that so many in our community and across the globe do not enjoy the blessings of food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities.
The rebbe’s tale reminds us that tzedakah beautifies the holiday and gives purpose and meaning to our existence. Our lives do indeed matter when we share our blessings with those in need.