In Jewish consciousness, there’s an idea that the three festivals—Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot—correspond to the three Patriarchs. Tonight is Sukkot, the holiday corresponding to Yaakov (Jacob).The Mitzvah of Sukkah is an unlike almost all others in that we do it with our entire body. We eat matzah with our mouths, light Shabbos candles with our hands, put tefillin on our arms, listen to the Torah reading with our ears, etc. but on Sukkot we are enjoined to eat, sleep, converse, and doing even mundane activities in the Sukkah; just sitting in the Sukkah while daydreaming can be mitzvah. On other festivals, we go about our life as normal, but eat certain foods (Matzah on Passover), learn more than usual (Shavuot) but on Sukkot we actually leave our homes and enjoy life in a temporary dwelling (Sukkah). This unique mitzvah opportunity should be a cause of happiness for Jews and, according to the 19th century Sephardic sage Ben Ish Chai, it is the reason why Sukkot is the only festival referred to as zman simchatainu—the time of our joy. The Sukkah is no mere ritual; it’s a constant reminder that we’re Jewish and that the Almighty has a special connection to us. Our entire body participates in this reminder.What does this have to do with Yaakov (Jacob)? Of the three Patriarchs, Yaakov is the paradigm of having to retain his spirituality amidst life’s struggles. He lived with a dishonest father in law who attempted to deceive him whenever he could. Yaakov’s daughter, Dina, kidnapped and abused, his son had been fatally attacked by a wild animal (i.e. he thought so for 22 years), he raised a large family, spent long hours at work in extreme heat and cold and consequently did not have many of the opportunities of his father (Isaac) or grandfather (Abraham). His greatness was that it didn’t prevent him from carrying out their vision of introducing monotheism to the world around them.The character trait associated with Yaakov is truth; he was able to keep his integrity even when his brother was pursuing and attempting to kill him, and even in the midst of a deceitful father in law who tried to rob him. And this is what he told his brother when the two finally had an encounter: I lived with Lavan (his father in law). The Talmud, through an exegesis based on a verse (Genesis 32:5), says that Yaakov hinted to his brother that he truly “lived” with his father in law, meaning that he retained his integrity and commitment to the mission of his parents (Isaac and Rebecca) and grandparents (Abraham and Sara). No adverse condition was ever an excuse for Yaakov to succumb. He never let his base instincts deter him and as a result he remains our model of how to find advantage amidst adversity.
This idea is also expressed in his instituting the evening prayer (Maariv). In the morning and afternoon, when the sun is out, there is optimism. At night it’s harder to remain hopeful or positive [It is well-known that light deprivation causes depression (Scientific American, July 2008)] Yaakov found G-d at night, the symbolic time of uncertainty and fear. Yaakov connected to G-d during the most difficult time.
We can now understand the connection of Yaakov to Sukkot because both symbolize living as a Jew even when the circumstances are not conducive to it. It is easier to feel spiritual when one is praying or studying Torah but a challenge when eating a piece of cake or lying in bed. When we’re in the Sukkah, we are living as Jews and remembering we’re Jewish even though we might not feel spiritual at the moment.
How can eating a devil dog be a Jewish experience? Eat it in the Sukkah. How can talking to your mother in law be a Jewish experience? Speak in the Sukkah. How reading a book to your child be a Jewish experience? Do it in the Sukkah.
Yaakov was able remain true to his life’s mission amidst immense adversity and personal challenge, and that was his greatness. We, who are not as great, have the Sukkah, which enables us to make mundane matters into something Jewishly significant. We sometimes forget our mission in life; we are the people who brought monotheism to the world and continue to be enjoined to be a light to the nations. But it is a challenge because instead of bringing light to the world, we allow ourselves to be influenced by its darkness. When we sit in the Sukkah, we are doing something distinctly Jewish and showing that eating, sleeping, and just talking—things we do throughout the year—can be Jewish experiences. Every time we sit in the Sukkah we get—so to speak—a drop of Yaakov and the idea that if we remain focused, nothing can deter us from being the Jews we need to be.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now over. We spent those days in spiritual pursuits—supplication and prayer. We are now ready for Sukkot, which is the culmination of the cycle because it gives a concrete tool and opportunity to express those pursuits in our daily lives. Here’s a question to start the new year; what will I do in the Sukkah this year?Chag Samayach
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