Dedicated to the blessed memory of Natan Yosef Chaim (J.J.) z”l, Ben Rav Yitzchak Ve’Blumah’ Greenberg. On the tenth anniversary of his untimely passing.
Yom Kippur was over, and with the festival of Sukkot around the corner, I realized I had no way to get a set of four species in time for the festival.
We were stationed in Lebanon, and the thought of having no set of ‘arbah minim’ (the four species) was really depressing. Somehow, I managed to re-arrange the officers’ duty-roster, leaving me an eighteen-hour window, and convinced my C.O. I could make it to Jerusalem and back in time to cover the next patrol.
All told, I ended up in Jerusalem for about three hours, which was enough to pick up a beautiful compact set of ‘ arbah minim,’ as well as some pizza for lunch, and ended up spending a good fifteen hours in travel. The challenge of keeping my Lulav (palm branch) undamaged and kosher while hitchhiking in a variety of small cars was not simple, but I made it back to base with my ‘arbah minim’ intact.
All of which gave me a whole different level of appreciation for the mitzvah that particular year. So on the morning of Sukkot, just back from a patrol, I found myself all alone in what passed for the synagogue in our base. (Basically half a caravan with a 105mm. shell-crate as an ark (with no Torah in it), a couple of benches, and a few dusty prayer books.)
It was too hot to pray inside, so I stepped outside and, facing south towards Jerusalem, continued my prayers. There is a point in the Hallel (the special psalms of praise and thanks that are sung on festivals), which really hit me: “Ma’ Ashiv La’Hashem?” “What have I to give back to G-d?”
There are certain moments in life, when you appreciate the gifts you have been given. In the middle of a war zone, with men getting killed or injured every day, and the number of close calls and near misses too many to count, you realize that life is a gift and you wonder why you are lucky enough to still be here. In silent gratitude, you pray yet again that you will succeed in making the life you have been given worth living.
“Nedarai’ La’Hashem A’shalem.” “I will repay my promises to G-d.”
The battlefield is full of promises, and you swear you will do things differently, if you make it; the time comes when you have to live up to your promises.
And in the midst of these thoughts, deep in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, with the Shouf mountain range rising up above, a niggun (a tune without words) just popped into my head and I began to sing. And pretty soon, lost in the moment, I actually began to dance.
It was a pretty powerful experience, until I turned around and realized I was not alone. Standing about twenty feet behind me were the base cook and a couple of soldiers on kitchen detail, including one of my men.
Judging by the expressions on their faces, they must have thought I was absolutely mad. And who could blame them? What would you think if you were on a military base located deep in a combat zone, and you happened across a lieutenant dancing in the dust with a lemon and a palm branch?
What, indeed, is the festival of Sukkoth all about? And what lies at the root of some of the rather strange rituals of this particular holiday?
Imagine for a moment you have a Jewish friend who knows next to nothing about his Jewish roots, and he is joining you for dinner on the first night of Sukkoth.
Imagine his face as you welcome him into your beautiful home and lead him past the incredible living room, through the magnificent dining hall, round the back of the house to… a Sukkah-booth!
Interestingly, one of the most beautiful parts of the Pesach (Passover) Seder, is the moment when our children ask the four questions, the Mah’ Nishtana, asking why this night is so different from all other nights?
Yet one wonders, why don’t we sing the Mah’ Nishtana on Sukkoth? After all, if ever there was a day that is different, it is the day we shake our four species, and sit in booths as the rainy season begins!?
What is Sukkoth about and what are these four species that we bind together? Jewish tradition notes that the Etrog or Citrus fruit has both a wonderful taste as a well as a magnificent fragrance. The Lulav or Palm branch, comes from the Palm Tree whose fruit, the date, has a wonderful taste, but no fragrance. The Haddasim or myrtle branches, on the other hand, have an incredible smell, but no taste. And the Aravot, or willow branches, have neither taste nor fragrance.
This, suggests Jewish tradition, represents all the different kinds of Jews: Those Jews who sit in the Yeshivot and devote their lives to Torah study and the transmission and preservation of the intricacies of Jewish tradition, as well as those Jews more focused on Jewish community and action, who may only enter a synagogue once or twice a year, but who fill the boards of all the Jewish charities and foundations or patrol the borders of Israel ensuring a home for the Jewish people. There are those rare Jews, who, like the Etrog, have both the fragrance of Jewish action and ethics, as well as the taste of Torah, which is constantly on their lips. And there are even those Jews who, so distant from their heritages, with no taste or smell, are almost undetectable amidst the foliage.
On Sukkoth, we hold all these Jews, represented by the four species, together. In fact, our service, and indeed the entire festival, is incomplete without any one of these four species, just as the Jewish people are incomplete without any one Jew, anywhere in the world.
We can only become the people we are meant to be, when we become one, binding ourselves together in pursuit of the destiny and the dream of a better world as envisioned by the festival of Sukkoth.
If on Yom Kippur we come to terms with who we really are, on Sukkoth we begin the fulfillment of the dream of who we could become. We sit in our flimsy huts, next to our beautiful and well built homes, because once a year, especially during this season of the harvest, when it is so easy to get caught up in how much we have, and all that we have built, we need to remember what an illusion that really is.
During the festival of Sukkoth we add a one line prayer to the blessings after a meal:
“HaRachaman Hu’ Yakim Lanu Et Sukkat David Ha’Nofalet.” “May the merciful one raise up the fallen Sukkah of David.”
This is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, the holy Temple, yet it is referred to here as a Sukkah. A Sukkah, after all, is a temporary hut, which the Temple certainly was not. In fact, if there was ever a structure in Judaism that was not meant to be temporary, it was the Temple!
Unless that is the whole point: Perhaps the message is that even the Beit HaMikdash, meant to stand forever, can be a Sukkah. You think the Temple is forever? Even the Temple can be a temporary hut, here today and gone tomorrow. In the end, the foundations of the Temple are not in the ground, but rather in the hearts of the Jewish people.
We sit in our homes with the illusion that they are ‘built to last.’ And for seven days (or eight outside the land of Israel) we sit in what we consider to be a temporary hut. The message of Sukkoth is that our homes are really just Sukkoth; temporary huts, and our Sukkoth, representing the idea that we are under the clouds of glory, completely in G-d’s hands, are really the homes we make for ourselves that are built to last.
We get so stuck in the things that hold us down; the Festival of Sukkoth allows us to realize they are temporary gifts; Sukkot challenges us to consider what things in life really last forever.
And this, perhaps, is why there is no Mah Nishtana on Sukkoth; because this idea, that we are only temporary dwellers in this world, and that true joy is in the discovery of purpose, and that only coming together as one people can help us arrive at true joy, is not something which should be different during this week. Rather, this should be the norm all year round.
Best wishes for a wonderful and happy Sukkoth,
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach,
R. Binny Freedman