Sukkos! What an exciting Yom Tov! So many different mitzvos, each with their own color and flavor. Dwelling in the sukkah, taking the 4 species, dancing at the simchas beis hashuava and on Simchas Torah … Nevertheless, there is one theme which runs through all these aspects. “Vesamachta bechagecha atah uvincha, uvitecha, ve’avdecha, va’amasecha, vehaLevi, vehager, vehayasom. veha’almanah asher bish’areycha – You shall rejoice on your festival along with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, and the Levite, proselyte, orphan and widow from your settlements” (Devorim 16:14). This extensive list makes it quite clear to us: Everyone should be b’simcha on Sukkos! Hence in Shemoneh Esrei we refer to Sukkos as “Z’man simchasenu – the time of our Happiness.” During every Yom Tov we must be happy, but regarding Sukkos the Torah commands us three times to be b’simcha, more so than any other Yom Tov. Why is this Yom Tov the happiest one?
Furthermore, if we are supposed to be in a state of happiness, why specifically now must we leave our comfortable, climate-controlled homes and live in a primitive hut? And why do many have a custom to read the megilla of Koheles – Ecclesiastes, on the Shabbos during Sukkos? In it, Shlomo HaMelech tells us how he had fabulous wealth and materialistic pleasures. Nevertheless, he describes it all, again and again, with one word: “Hevel – Emptiness!” Why do we read what seems to be a depressing megillah during the time of joy?
Chag Ha’asif – The Festival of Ingathering
The midrash (Yalkut Vayikra 654) reveals to us one of the reasons for the extra simcha: “and because now all the crops have been brought into the storehouses.” This can be seen from the fact that the Torah (Devorim 16:13) points out that Sukkos is “be’ospecha migornecha umiyikvecha” when we bring in from the threshing floor and wine vat. Hence, another name of Sukkos is Chag Ha’asif – The Festival of Ingathering. We can certainly imagine the great joy of the farmer as he fills his storehouses after almost a year of toil and anticipation. At this time of extreme happiness the Torah commands us to celebrate Sukkos. Why?
Human nature is to constantly look forward to the future. A young boy looks forward to his bar mitzvah, and after that toward his graduation, and after that to his wedding, and then to his first child, and so on. This is quite unfortunate, as we never enjoy what we have presently. The Torah is teaching us that before we begin the new planting season, we should look back at what we have and appreciate it. This of course is not limited to those who have farms. We all should look back at what we received over the past year and thank Hashem for it.
But this raises a different question. Since we are celebrating last year’s bounty, shouldn’t Sukkos be celebrated before the New Year starts?
Let us return to Koheles. How is it that Shlomo HaMelech just wipes away great portions of Hashem’s creation with one word, calling them empty? If Hashem created them, obviously they have a purpose! And furthermore – if these things are all empty, why did Shlomo have them?
The Sefer Otzar Hachaim gives a beautiful explanation. We all know that “zero” has no value. However if we put a “one” next to it, it becomes significant. The more “zeros” after the “one” the greater the value is! Shlomo Hamelech is telling us that if we view materialism as a goal in itself, it is one big zero – hevel. However, if we realize that all materialism is a way to reach spirituality, it takes on a new perspective. This is why the megillah ends off: “Sof davar hakol nishma, es Elokim yira v’ies mitzvosov shimor, ki zeh kol hadam – In the end all is heard, fear Hashem and keep His mitzvos for this is the purpose of man.” This posuk teaches us the true purpose of the world – to keep Hashem’s mitzvos.
This message became clearer to us during the Yomim Hanoraim, as stated in the midrash. “L’Dovid, Hashem Ori V’yishi – Hashem is my light and salvation – Hashem is our light on Rosh Hashana and our salvation on Yom HaKippurim.” On Rosh Hashana, a great light shined, which showed us the true purpose of the world. Spirituality and closeness to Hashem is our only goal. By dwelling in the King’s presence for two days our outlook changed. And then on Yom Kippur we showed Hashem who the real “me” is and how showed regret for all of our past pursuits of worldly pleasures. He then saved us from any harsh verdict which may have been written for us.
Sukkah – True Happiness
Only after all this comes Sukkos. Now that we realize spirituality is our purpose, we can properly rejoice over the gifts we have received from Hashem. Until then, it was all hevel. In order to internalize this message the Torah commands us to move to the sukkah. By doing so, we turn all our mundane actions into mitzvos. Eating, drinking, sleeping, talking – they all becomes elevated. And in truth, the sukkah should not be a forlorn, dilapidated hut. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 639:1) tells us that we should take our nice furniture and fancy utensils out to the sukkah (as long as they won’t get stolen or ruined!). There, we have delicious Yom Tov meals and enjoy them immensely! Hashem made this world to be enjoyed – but only in the proper context – for doing mitzvos. The sukkah teaches us the true purpose of materialism.
And this will bring us true joy. One who makes materialism a goal onto itself will never be happy. He will always be looking for more and more pleasures. When he finally fulfills one desire he will look for the next one. By realizing that spirituality is our desire and materialism is just a means to reach that goal, we will be overjoyed with what we have. By living this way during Chag HaSukkos and hearing it from the “man who had it all” – Shlomo Hamelech – we will have learnt to abandon the foolish mindset of our generation.
Thus, Sukkos is the most joyful Yom Tov. We can now truly be satisfied and happy with all of the gains of the past year. We celebrate all our spiritual accomplishments, with the first and foremost being the closeness we felt to Hashem on the Yomim HaNoraim and the atonement of Yom Kippur. We celebrate all the wealth which we received over the last year, be it small or large. Our families, our health, the two thousand (!) pounds of food which Hashem gave each and every one of us…the list goes on and on! And finally, on the last day, Simchas Torah, we rejoice with the greatest present – the Torah, our deep connection to Hashem.
We all know that wherever we have opportunities for greatness the Yetzer Hora tries to stop us. Let us make sure to be in a state of happiness no matter what happens on Sukkos. Even when things don’t go the way we planned, just think about how we are truly wealthy and not let trivial matters bother us. With a little effort and contemplation we can tap into the happiness of these days. Vehayisa ach same’ach!
About the Author: Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus, raised and educated in Los Angeles and subsequently Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, is the Rosh Kollel of the Zichron Aron Yaakov Kollel in Kiryat Sefer , Israel. He lectures for the public and is the director of the Chasdei Rivka Free Loan Gemach. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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