The purpose of a succah is to curb the harmful influences that come with the joy of accumulating property
After such a successful harvest, why not enjoy the profits in your cozy home instead of spending the week in a flimsy hut?
We all know that on Succos, we have a positive commandment to be joyful, but it’s puzzling: How can a person be instructed to be happy? And what are we supposed to be specifically joyful about on Succos? About eating our meals in a temporary hut out in the yard instead of in our dining room?
Let’s figure this out by closely examining the Torah’s words: “You shall make for yourself the festival of Succos, seven days, when you gather in [the produce] of your granary and your winepress. You shall rejoice in your festival… and you shall be only joyful” (Devarim 16:13-15).
One key phrase here is often misunderstood: “When you gather in [the produce] of your granary and your winepress” seems to evoke a natural simchah. Succos comes at the harvest season, indeed a happy time for our forefathers in the Biblical Land of Israel, when they saw the fruit of their labor. The sheaves of grain, bundled and lined up in rows, made their hearts swell. Their year of toil had paid off, and their silos were full. This was clearly a time to feel happy. But is this really the simchah that the Torah intended? Does the Torah need to command a person to be joyful while indulging in a feast? Who wouldn’t rejoice in the fruit of his labor in the field and vineyard, to see his granary full and his winepress busily crushing vats of grapes?
Clearly, the simchah required during the festival is of a different sort. It is a new breed of simchah, and as we’ll see, this joy is linked to the mitzvah of dwelling in a succah.
The succah, as we know, is meant to remind us of our sojourn in the Wilderness, as the Torah says: “So that your generations should know that in succahs I made the Children of Israel to dwell, when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:39).
Okay, so we should sit in a succah in order to recall Yetzias Mitzrayim. But why are we preserving this memory on the 14th of Tishrei specifically?
But Tishrei was chosen, for indeed, it comes in the joyous harvest season. True, when we “gather in the produce of our granary and our winepress,” we automatically feel a surge of joy that needs no prompting from the Torah.
The great commentators well understood the message the Torah wished to convey by timing the mitzvah of succah to coincide with the harvest season. For this is actually the ideal time to command a man to leave his home and fortress and spend at least seven days in a temporary dwelling:
“So that the generations to come should not let their hearts become proud at harvest time, when their houses are full of goods. Rather, they should think of their eternal home and of their end. They should know and take to heart ‘that I made the Children of Israel to dwell in succahs,’ to inculcate the message that this world is but a guest house and a temporary dwelling” (Malbim on the pasuk).
It becomes clear, then, that the purpose of a succah is to curb the harmful influences that come with the joy of accumulating property. Sin crouches at the barn door at harvest time. Along with the joy of a successful crop comes a certain smug sense of possessiveness. The feeling of wealth often brings with it more than a trace of pride. It gives the ego a pat on the back and congratulates it on a job well done. At the same time, imperceptibly, a sense of disdain and superiority develops toward the less successful, those who haven’t “made it.” And now, hidden in the recesses of the heart, a seed has been sown for divisions between people.
And that’s not all. Harvest time, or any time a person feels crowned with success, has another effect on the human personality. Success engenders pride, and as a result, material achievement becomes an end instead of a means. Then another evil seed is sown deep in the heart, driving a person to pursue material wealth at any cost. Like the mythical Sisyphus, he can never attain his goal, because he always wants more, yet he compulsively keeps up the chase, sometimes paying for it dearly.
Walling off one’s heart from others and the relentless pursuit of material goods are the chief enemies of simchah, the robbers that deprive both the individual and the community of happiness.
That is the sad story of humanity: It is not money, but the pursuit of money that has caused the desperate craving to climb to the zenith of prestige, by whatever yardstick one measures it and even if one has to claw his way there. It has turned our world into a hunting ground where the unachievable is endlessly pursued. Whatever is achieved cannot be enjoyed, because there’s always someone else who’s achieved more.
And so, precisely at harvest time, when the human propensity for greed is at a peak, the Torah places the mitzvah of succah before us to temper our natural urges, to restore balance to the human heart.
It is a mitzvah for rich and poor alike — “for every citizen in Israel” — to leave one’s simple house or one’s elegant mansion or penthouse, to leave the status that separates one man from another and go live for one week outside the material framework one has created for oneself. To live in structures that are all essentially the same, structures with flimsy walls that shake in the wind, that show the sky through a leafy roof that keeps out neither rain nor sun. A week of equality, imbued with a sense of transience, giving a fresh, healthier outlook on the property left behind in the house.
Every Jew knows that the whole nation is now sitting outside in their succahs, and this temporary disengagement from the comforts of home, this transience and minimalism, are reminders of the ephemeral nature of this world. Now a person can let go of the false sense of security in his property. His burning drive to obtain wealth and all its appurtenances is toned down, and through the cracks in the wall of materialism, a man gets a glimpse of others once more.
Rav Yitzchak Arama writes in Akeidas Yitzchak, “This is the special meaning of this festival… we go out to our little succah with only the meals for each day as it comes and furnished with only a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp, and this is a wonderful way of arousing one’s soul not to be concerned with these matters, for the necessities are enough… [The minimum size of a succah] which is seven tefachim in length, seven in width, and ten in height, teaches us, first of all, about a life of satisfaction with the minimum; that is to say, limit yourself to what is necessary and do not seek great things, because if you train yourself in this way you will want for nothing, and if you allow yourself luxuries, nothing will satisfy you.”
There you have it: Brotherhood, equality, and simplicity as opposed to mere exultation over one’s own success in winning material gains, a short-lived pleasure that always leads to sadness in the end, is the secret of true simchah. This year as we enter the succah, let’s all take stock, be grateful for what we have without chasing our tails, and experience the true simchah the Torah promises.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
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