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Rabbi Daniel Staum - Succos 5775 "Transcendent Joy"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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  • “Happiness is a Swedish sunset--it is there for all, but most of us look the other way and lose it.” (Mark Twain)
  • “A person tends to be as happy as he makes himself” (Abe Lincoln)
  • Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get." (Dave Gardner)
  • "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go." (Oscar Wilde)
  • “Real happiness is what you experience when you are doing what you should be doing. When you are moving clearly along your own road, your unique path to your unique destination, you experience real happiness. When you are moving along the path that leads to yourself, to the deep discovery of who you really are, when you are building the essence of your own personality and creating yourself, a deep happiness wells up within you. The journey does not cause happiness, the journey is the happiness itself.” (Rabbi Akiva Tatz)

The following thoughts were adapted from a lecture I was privileged to hear from Harav Meir Rogosnitzky shlita, on the second evening of Succos 5768 in Kehillas Kol Chaim, Lakewood, NJ.[1]

“In succos (huts) you shall dwell for seven days; every citizen in Yisroel shall dwell in succos. In order that your generations shall know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in succos when I took them out of the land of Egypt; I am Hashem, your G-d.”[2]

The gemara quotes a disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer as to why we live in succos for the duration of the seven day festival. Rabbi Eliezer opines that it is in commemoration of the Clouds of Glory which enveloped and protected our forefathers during their forty year sojourns in the perilous desert. When we sit in our succos we assert our belief that, just as G-d was the sole protector of our ancestors in the desert, so too ultimately G-d is our only protector. Rabbi Akiva argues that our succos commemorate the physical huts which our ancestors constructed in the desert to serve as their temporary homes.

Rabbi Akiva’s opinion begs explanation. Why should we dwell in huts just because they dwelled in huts? What is the point of imitating their mode of lifestyle when they had little else, if we have the ability to live in a far more comfortable manner?

Rashbam explains that the desert is a vast wasteland, devoid of production or protection. During their forty years in the desert the nation subsisted on manna and supernatural miracles because there was nothing else available to them. However, as soon as they entered the Promised Land they were able to build homes, have fields and vineyards, and live more comfortable lifestyles. However, that lifestyle presented a grave spiritual danger. When one supports himself from the production that comes from his own efforts he can easily grow haughty and ‘forget G-d’. Therefore, each year - right in the middle of the season of the harvest - we leave our homes and move into huts.

As we sit in a succah as our forefathers did, we remind ourselves of the complete faith that they had in G-d when they were in the desert. This allows us to maintain a proper perspective about our own successes. It reminds us that it is G-d who grants blessing and bounty, all of our efforts not withstanding. According to Rashbam the succah is no more than a physical reminder to help us maintain our faith during this season.

Ramban offers a similar explanation about the mitzvah of succah. However, he adds a key point: “And G-d was with them; they lacked nothing.” In other words, the reason why we must recall the fact that they lived in huts in the desert is to remind us that, despite the fact that they were in the desert, G-d provided their basic needs to the extent that they lacked nothing.

According to Ramban, the purpose of living in the succah is to remind us that G-d provides for our basic needs, and that those who trust in Him don’t feel deprived in any way. The joy of Succos is not a joy of physical pleasures and enjoyments. Rather, it is a joy that emanates from an inner realization that we are indeed lacking nothing.

It is for this reason that Megillas Koheles is read on Succos[3]. The overriding message of Koheles is that all of the physicality and pleasures of this world are futile. One who pursues a hedonistic and pampered life will find that he is unable to satiate his soul. In order to achieve real inner happiness one must recognize where happiness does not come from. Once one understands that this world “is futile of futilities” then he can seek happiness where it truly lies, from inner spiritual quests.[4]

In order to truly appreciate what happiness is one must understand the root of its opposite - sadness and mourning. In our current exile, the symbol of our national mourning is the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash. The gemara[5] explains that although during the second Temple era there was a plethora of Torah scholars and Torah scholarship, the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of the sin of baseless hatred, i.e. the lack of peace and harmony among Klal Yisroel. Tosefta[6] writes that although the people of that time toiled in Torah and were meticulous about removing the requisite tithes, they were exiled because they hated each other and loved money.

The commentaries question how the Sages can assert that the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of hatred and love of money, when in the tochacha[7] in parshas Ki Savo[8] the Torah states: “All these curses will come upon you and pursue you and overtake you, until You are destroyed… because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant.”[9] If the Torah itself states that retribution comes because of a lack of joy how can the Sages offer ulterior explanations?

Inner joy and happiness are rooted in feelings of purpose and direction. When one feels that he plays a unique role and that he is a necessary piece of a bigger puzzle, then he develops internal satisfaction, which breeds inner joy and contentment.

If a person lacks constant impetus and motivation then he will, G-d forbid, lapse into depression and despair. Therefore, one who lacks that internal sense of purpose will be forced to seek validation and purpose from external forces in order to maintain his motivation and drive. If he cannot find meaning within he will seek it without. He will pursue superficial sources of joy, which offer momentary instant gratification.

Thus develops the pursuit of materialism, economic success, prestige, and the amassment of wealth and assets. When one becomes involved in the relentless pursuit of financial and lucrative endeavors, it leads to insatiable greed, desire, and jealousy. Once one has become trapped in the throngs of those evil emotions hatred and enmity are never far behind.[10]

One whose entire identity and sense of purpose is invested in his material possessions and level of prestige will feel threatened by anyone who challenges what he has attained. His acrimony towards others stems from his unmitigated desire to preserve his self-identity, which is enmeshed with his amassments and achievements. His lack of true joy is essentially a result of his failure to appreciate his inner greatness and beauty.[11]

The Torah is the book of life; it teaches us the roots of all human behavior. The Oral Law is the commentary which allows us to comprehend the deeper meaning behind the actual words recorded in the Torah. The Oral law explains that the reason why the second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed was because of greed, jealousy, enmity and the relentless pursuit for money and self-aggrandizement. That was indeed the bottom line and the reason why it was destroyed. However, those were merely the symptoms of a deeper malady. The Torah itself delineates the root of the problem. How did a holy nation such as Klal Yisroel who studied Torah and were meticulous about its laws fall into such a lowly state of baseless hatred and lack of harmony? “Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart”.

Despite all of their greatness in Torah and performance of mitzvos they did not comprehend their own greatness, the importance of what they were engaged in, and how vital their role was. They did not have an adequate sense of internal self-worth and therefore they were forced to seek it in external endeavors. The downward spiraling of the nation resulted from that subtle initial failure to recognize their own value.

On Tisha B’av when we mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, we also mourn the root of the destruction - our lack of self-appreciation and self-worth.

After the mourning process concludes we begin the process of consolation, i.e. the recognition that despite all of our iniquities we are not lost and that we have the capacity to rebuild ourselves and recapture what we forfeited when we sinned. Gaining this confidence is the foundation for teshuva and the process of re-creation, as it were, which commences at the beginning of the month of Elul[12].

One of the most important components of the repentance process is the recitation of the “יג' מדות – the thirteen Attributes (of G-d). The first two are “ ה' ה'” (the Name of G-d repeated). The gemara[13] explains that the two names of G-d refer to two different Attributes of G-d, “G-d before man sins, and G-d after man sins.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt’l[14] explains that when G-d created the world it did not have the ability to bear sin, which counters the foundation of creation. As soon as man sinned the world should have become obsolete and returned to its original state of nothingness. In His infinite mercy, G-d enacted an immediate recreation of the world, as it were, so that as soon as man sinned there was a second “emergence” of the world, a world of “G-d after man sins”. All of the following eleven attributes of G-d’s Mercy can only be effective if there is a world in existence. The second mention of the name of G-d, which represents the recreation of the world after man sins, is the foundation for all the other Attributes. Thus, repentance is not merely the G-d given ability for one to erase his past, but it is a recreation and a new existence of himself and the entire world.

On Yom Kippur we abstain from eating, drinking, and other basic physical enjoyments and needs. In so doing, we demonstrate our understanding that because we are sullied with sin we are undeserving to partake in the pleasures of this world, and even to exist at all. However, through the service of the day and through our painstaking efforts to repent and repair the damage our sins have caused, we merit becoming new creations. We emerge from the awesome day like a child with a tabula rasa. After undergoing that purification process we are again worthy of enjoying the physical world.

When we have reached that level of rebirth after Yom Kippur we can begin to reflect upon our value and importance. With the opportunity for “rebirth” that Yom Kippur affords one can reach the internal level of inner joy and happiness that was forfeited at the time of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.

Succos is called the “time of our joy” because the realization of our internal greatness and our importance as members of Klal Yisroel leads to the most sublime level of genuine joy.

When one has a true sense of inner joy he will not need to pursue it in external superficial pursuits. Thus during the holiday of Succos we exit our homes and leave behind the temporal pleasures of this world which falsely give us a sense of meaning throughout the year. This allows us to focus on true joy, relieved from the burden of material competitiveness, and internally content that we lack nothing.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l explains similarly that the essence of the mitzvah of succah is to demonstrate to its adherents that true joy results from spiritual pursuits, not physical commodities or pleasures. He explains that this concept is the root of many of the laws pertaining to the s’chach (the covering of the succah).

“The products of earth cut off from nature and lacking the stamp of Man’s power is exactly what the law prescribed for the s’chach which form our succahs. It must be a product of the earth (gedulai karka) but it must be neither joined to the earth (mechubar), so that he who places himself under it would be committing himself to the protection of the powers of the earth, nor may it be susceptible to halachic impurity (mekabel tumah), such as fruits or vessels which bear the imprint of Man’s mastery.

“So that our succah-roofing has either the signs of the Clouds of Glory, they too, have their origin in the ground – and still has neither the character of the power of the earth nor that of Man; or it brings to mind literal huts (succos mamash- the opinion of Rabbi Akiva mentioned earlier), it has the character of the wilderness, the abandonment of the normal assistance of Nature and Man, it may be neither from the threshing-floor nor the wine-press (goren v’yakav), the normal means of food and enjoyment, but it is the refuse from the threshing-floor and the wine-press (p’soles goren v’yakav), that which people throw away as being empty of nourishment or enjoyment.”

In regards to the succah there is a unique exemption, metztaer patur min hasuccah - one who is in extreme discomfort because of the succah is exempt from it. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the objective of the succah is for one to contemplate and realize the joy and bliss one can achieve without fleeting temporal comforts. But one who is in distress will be unable to appreciate that essential lesson and, therefore, is exempt from it.

The joy of Succos is the joy that stems from the recognition that every person is invaluable, a vital asset to Klal Yisroel. When we sit in the succah we focus on our personal worth, protected and loved by G-d. When we shake the four species, which symbolize the binding of all of Klal Yisroel together in harmony and peace, we focus on our importance as part of that binding. Thus, these two central mitzvos of the holiday, the succcah and the Four Species, symbolize the basis of our joy.

The holiday of Succos represents the true antidote for the mourning of Tisha B’av. It is truly the conclusion and culmination of the consolation and comfort process. We sinned because we failed to realize our greatness; now we celebrate because we have arrived at an understanding of how individually great and valuable we all are.

“You did not serve Hashem amid gladness and goodness of heart”

“In succos you shall dwell for seven days”

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[1] Rabbi Rogosnitzky was a Rabbi in England and co-director of a kollel in Amsterdam before coming to Lakewood. Besides being an erudite scholar he is also a deep thinker. This lecture contains a powerful thought that connects many of the different aspects of the glorious holiday of Succos. I hope I have done it justice.

[2] Vayikra 23:42-43

[3] It is read on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Succos

[4] Based on a thought from Harav Yaakov Neiman zt’l in Darkei Mussar

[5] Yoma 9b

[6] Menachos chap. 13

[7] ‘verses of rebuke’

[8] Ramban writes that the rebuke of Ki Savo refers specifically to the calamities that would befall the nation at the time of the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash.

[9] Devorim 28:45-47

[10] As someone mentioned to me on Yom Kippur, “I pray that G-d should give prosperity and blessing to all of Klal Yisroel, EXCEPT my competitor who should be blessed with financial ruin speedily in my days.”

[11] Based on a thought from Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, Rosh Kollel in Miami, FL

[12] Although the “three weeks” end on the tenth of Av, during the following seven weeks the haftoros (portion from the prophets read after the Torah reading on Shabbos morning) contain words of consolation and comfort. They are aptly termed the ‘shiva d’nichemta- the seven of comfort’. The final of the seven is read during the final Shabbos of the year (i.e. the Shabbos prior to Rosh Hashnana). Thus the process of mourning which began on Shvia Asar B’Tammuz and continued until Tisha B’Av, does not truly end until we are well into our process of repentance. It is clear that the mourning/comfort and repentance processes are inextricable connected.

[13] Rosh Hashana 17b

[14] See Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Kippur 1:5 where this concept is explained in detail.

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