A Booth for All Occasions Sukkot 5780-2019

In Jewish consciousness, there’s an idea that the three festivals-Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot-correspond to the three Patriarchs. Passover corresponds to Abraham, Shavuos, Isaac, Sukkot to Yaakov (Jacob). Being as Sunday night is the first night of Sukkot, we will focus on Yaakov and the fact that he is associated with this festival.   The scriptural source for this is verse that tells us that after Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) encounter with Esav, his deceitful brother,  he went to a place called, “Sukkot” and he made “Sukkot” (temporary huts) for his animals. Still, we are left with the question, what connection does Jacob have with Sukkot?The Mitzvah of Sukkah is an anomaly in that it is the only one we do 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 (Shavuos) 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 charutainu-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.What does all of 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 every opportunity he could; his daughter was raped, his son-he thought for 22 years– had been fatally attacked by a wild animal, he raised a large family, spent long hours at work in extreme heat and cold and consequently could not spend his days in prayer, study, and contemplation of G-d. His greatness lies in the fact that he was able to carry out the vision of his father (Isaac) and grandfather (Abraham) of ethical monotheism and everything it entailed. 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; he kept his integrity, spirituality, 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 to base instincts; he remains our model of how to find advantage in adversity.This idea is also expressed in the fact that, according to the Talmud the evening prayer (“Maariv”) was instituted by Yaakov. In the morning and afternoon the sun is out and there is optimism, at night it’s harder to remain positive and hopeful [It is a fact that light deprivation causes depression (Scientific American, July 2008)]. Yaakov found G-d at night, symbolic of uncertainty and outward appearance lack of G-d. Yaakov connected to G-d at the most difficult times.

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? You got it; do it in the Sukkah. Yaakov was able remain true to his life’s mission amidst immense adversity and personal challenges 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 sometimes the world we are supposed to light up ends up influencing us more than we influence it. 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 supplication, prayer, and spirituality; we are now ready for Sukkot, which is the beautiful culmination of the cycle because it gives a concrete way to express spirituality in our daily lives. What an opportunity! This Sukkot, try it out and spend as much time as you can in the Sukkah and ask yourself, what will I do in the Sukkah this year?Chag Samayach

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