Thursday, 27 September 2018

A Vort for Sukkos

Moirai V’Raboisai! Here is my vort Lekovod Sukkos specially for my dear readers and followers.

Why is it that on Pesach we pile on the stringencies while on Sukkos it is just the opposite and the leniencies win over?

Let me give some examples. The Torah tells us to eat Matzoh on Pesach because our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry or because it is a slave’s ration and yet we spend a lifetime’s saving on some stale indigestible cardboard that supposedly complies with every stringency under the sun. That is also nothing compared to the ban on chometz. The Torah commands us to refrain from unleavened bread for just seven days which might be bad enough. But along come Chazal and add on about three-quarters of a day on Erev Pesach when chometz is also forbidden just in case. And it’s not just the duration of the ban but also the subject matter. Chometz means leavened dough but along came the rabbis and throw rice and millet into the bargain and of course the ashkenazim go even further and ban all legumes. The Torah says only that chometz may not be found in your homes but along come the sages and say it must be burned.

But these examples are largely unnecessary because who doesn’t know how crazy Pesach gets. Every other prohibition has a de minimis exemption whereas chometz on Pesach, even the tiniest of particles is forbidden. Which is why we drive ourselves crazy for weeks before and which all culminates in the hide-and-seek game of Bedikas Chometz. All for the sake of eliminating that leavened atom hiding in the eaves of the attic or in the crease of the curtain.

Now contrast all this with Sukkos. The Torah could not be plainer by saying, thou shalt sit in booths for 7 days. Or tabernacles. Or sheds. However you translate it, it still comes to something that shields you from four sides and on top. The Torah also gives a reason, for in booths did I settle the Children of Israel when I brought them out from the Land of Egypt. So there you are. A booth is a booth is a booth. Well, so you would think until Chazal intervene though this time in the opposite direction.

It needn’t have 4 walls and actually 3 walls will do very nicely. And while we’re at it even 3 complete walls are a tad too much and the 3rd wall can be a mere tefach in width, which is all of about 8-10 cm. As for the height of the walls, they needn’t reach the roof and so long that the gap is not too large we’ll create a legal fiction of the ‘crooked wall’ and pretend the wall reaches to the roof even though in reality it does not. This is still not the end of it and there are yet more fictions to ‘connect’ that which is asunder and to ‘suspend’ invisible walls. And all of this to create a supposed booth even if it is so small that it can hold nothing but the head and the majority of a single human body and little else.

Which brings us back to the glaring contrast where on Pesach which is supposedly to celebrate our freedom and yet we pile it on while on Sukkos when we are supposed to shield ourselves from the elements and yet it is all interpreted in the direction of exposure.

And so we come to the vort itself.

On Pesach we indeed celebrate our liberation from our oppressors and our emergence from slavery to independence and so the Torah and Chazal remind us that freedom need be handled with care. Too much freedom may bring on overindulgence, the liberation of oneself can lead to the oppression of others and and an overabundance of individual liberty may be followed by an abuse of the very freedoms we pined for during our affliction.

We needn’t look far for examples. In our times we find countries that in the past fought to shake off their oppressors, whether the Americans of their British overlords or more recently Eastern European countries of Soviet rule, are now electing semi-tyrants with oppressive policies towards minorities and the disadvantaged. The leader of a country formed of immigrants and which gave us the first amendment protecting freedom of speech spends his time viciously attacking migrants and a free press. Likewise, the internet that was supposed to empower individuals, communities and society at large with ready access to information and communication is instead used to spread lies and hate and addict people to the very portal through which their freedom was supposedly to be gained. As the Posuk says in Shiras Ha’azinu after listing the abundance enjoyed by the B’nei Yisroel, And Yeshurun grew fat and kicked - you became fat, you became obese, you became engorged - and he abandoned the God who made him and held in contempt the Rock, his Saviour.

Thus on Pesach when we were released from human servitude and we were awarded our first taste of freedom we tether ourselves to a higher duty and more meaningful purpose in order to contain the abuses that may follow the acquisition of too many rights and privileges. To enjoy our newly acquired freedom and liberation we limit them and set ourselves boundaries so as not to become corrupted by instant gratification and inebriated by too much of a good thing.

Sukkos on the other hand is the very opposite of Pesach. The Israelites were punished to wander in the desert for forty years when they were prevented from entering the promised land. Sukkos thus symbolises wandering and exile. We say in the prayer on the first night of Sukkos when first entering the sukkah, In the merit of leaving my home may it count for me as if I have wandered far. Also in the famous Yiddish poem, A Sukele a Kleine (A Weeny Sukkah) by Avraham Reisen (see here for translation) the shaky Sukkoh buffeted by the winds symbolises our exile and persecution along the way.

And so when we wander and are afflicted our attitude must be the very opposite of Pesach. We cannot in such times afford to close ourselves off from the world in a narcissism of exactitude and pedantry. Instead we must make allowance for outside winds to blow through our midst. Be they winds of change or be it a cooling breeze, sealing ourselves off from the outside on all sides with top to down walls is not an option. A sukkah with too thick a covering is invalid and instead we are forced to construct a roof through which the stars may be seen. Walls need not be on all four sides and they need not hermetically seal us off from the outside. We may breathe the outside air and we may dream beyond what is close and familiar and yet the sukkah will continue to shield and protect us. Because even in its reduced and exposed state the sukkah is still where God settles the Children of Israel.

Have a Good Yom Tov!

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