Here is a strange and perplexing Midrash: “When Job complained about his unbearable suffering, God showed him a sukkah of three walls.”
The meaning of this enigmatic Midrash could be as follows: A sukkah by definition is a temporary residence. The halachic rule is that it must have at least three walls or even two walls and a tefach (handbreadth) that comprises a third wall (Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 630).
However, even though the sukkah must have a temporary status, it must be fit to be lived in as the Talmud in Sukkah 26a states, “Teshvu k’ein taduru” – “You shall dwell [in the sukkah] as if it were your permanent residence.” This is the reason why one is not required to stay in a sukkah that he considers an uncomfortable dwelling place (Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 640).
The obvious question: How can a sukkah of three walls be called a comfortable dwelling? Would one live in a house with three walls? The answer is that if a person is truly a believer in the Torah, then even a sukkah with three walls becomes for him a comfortable residence because the Torah considers it to be a dwelling.
Because living in the sukkah is a mitzvah, one enjoys living in it as much as he enjoys living in his own permanent and beautiful home. It all comes down to his state of mind.
When God showed Job a sukkah of three walls, God meant to say, “Life in this world includes pain and suffering. Nevertheless, accept the life I have given you because I meant it to be this way. Then you will enjoy being close to Me for eternity in Olam Haba.”
The lesson of the three-walled sukkah is that a person should accept and enjoy his life as God planned it even if he experiences pain and suffering.
It is in human nature to become accustomed to and not appreciate what we have until we are deprived of it. We become entitled and begin to feel we deserve what we have been given.
Job had it all – wealth, a beautiful and large family, many friends and admirers. Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim explains that Job is a metaphor for Israel. Such has been the experience of the Jewish people throughout our history. The Tanach is replete with stories of our nation becoming complacent, sinning, being punished, doing teshuvah and experiencing prosperity and success, only to return to complacency and sinning once again.
We keep forgetting the debt we owe God and continue the vicious cycle.
Sukkot is a time when we can break out of this cycle, and the sukkah represents this opportunity. On Sukkot we leave the comfort and stability of our homes and the roofs over our heads that conceal us from the outside world, obscuring our recognition of God’s gifts. We enter a structure that is temporary and unstable, leaving ourselves vulnerable to the elements. We construct the sukkah in such a way that we are bound to notice our own deficiencies and our reliance on God’s protection. The sechach (the sukkah roof), which must come from a natural source and can’t be artificially made, represents God’s eternal, continuous protection of us.
Judaism teaches that God maintains the world and that nothing exists without Him. Yet all too often we find ourselves grabbing credit for what we have accomplished and assigning blame for the errors and failings of others – all the while forgetting God’s role in our lives. When we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life and Blessings on the High Holy Days that precede Sukkot, we emphasize that everything stems from God.
Sukkot brings the message of the High Holy Days to a tangible, perceptible level as we leave the comfort of our permanent homes and enter a temporary and fragile sukkah. In the sukkah, it bears repeating, we are confronted with the realization that we are indebted to God for our very existence. After a week of living in the sukkah, we can return to our homes “re-JEW-venated” with the idea that our permanent dwellings and our daily routines are also under God’s protection, but in a more mundane and concealed fashion.
The sukkah offers us the opportunity to reconnect with God and to reevaluate our relationship with Him by removing some of the barriers that obstruct our day-to-day life.
This year, we should make sure to take the lesson from Sukkah University back into our permanent homes.Rabbi Ephraim S. Sprecher
About the Author: Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
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